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By Alfie Kohn
Abigail is given plenty of worksheets to complete in class as well as a substantial amount of homework. She studies to get good grades, and her school is proud of its high standardized test scores. Outstanding students are publicly recognized by the use of honor rolls, awards assemblies, and bumper stickers. Abigail’s teacher, a charismatic lecturer, is clearly in control of the class: students raise their hands and wait patiently to be recognized. The teacher prepares detailed lesson plans well ahead of time, uses the latest textbooks, and gives regular quizzes to make sure kids stay on track.
What’s wrong with this picture? Just about everything.
The features of our children’s classrooms that we find the most reassuring – largely because we recognize them from our own days in school – typically turn out to be those least likely to help students become effective and enthusiastic learners.
That dilemma is at the heart of education reform.
On the relatively rare occasions when nontraditional kinds of instruction show up in classrooms, many of us become nervous if not openly hostile. “Hey, when I was in school the teacher was in front of the room, teaching us what we needed to know about addition and adverbs and atoms. We paid attention and studied hard if we knew what was good for us. And it worked!” Or did it? Never mind all those kids who gave up on school and came to think of themselves as stupid. The more interesting question is whether those of us who were successful students “achieved this success by memorizing an enormous number of words without necessarily understanding them or caring about them. ‘Is it possible that we are not really as well educated as we’d like to think? Might we have spent a good chunk of our childhoods doing stuff that was exactly as pointless as we suspect edit was at the time?’ 1
TWO MODELS OF SCHOOLING
Let us begin by acknowledging that there are as many ways of teaching as there are teachers. Anyone who attempts to apply a single set of labels to all educators will be omitting some details and ignoring some complications – not unlike someone who describes politicians in terms of how far they are to the left or right. Still, it isn’t entirely inaccurate to classify some classrooms and schools, some people and proposals, as tilting toward a philosophy that is more traditional or conservative as opposed to nontraditional or progressive. The former might be called the Old School of education, which of course is not a building but a state of mind – and ultimately a statement about the mind.
When asked what they think schools ought to look like, some back-to-basics proponents cite the importance of “obedience to authority” and list certain favored classroom practices: “Students sit together (usually in rows) and everyone follows the same lesson. … In basics classrooms lines of responsibility are very clear; everyone knows his or her task and recognizes who is in charge.” The idea is to have students memorize facts and definitions, to make sure that skills are “drilled into” them. Even in social studies, as one principal explains, “We are much more concerned about teaching where Miami is than about Miami’s problem with Cubans. “Not all traditionalists would go quite that far, but most would agree that schooling amounts to the transmission of a body of knowledge from the teacher (who has it) to the child (who doesn’t), a process that relies on getting the child to listen to lectures, read textbooks, and, often, to practice skills by completing worksheets.” 2
In the Old School, reading lessons tend to teach specific sounds, such as long vowels, in isolation; math classes emphasize basic facts and calculations. Academic fields (math, English, history) are taught separately. Within each subject, big things are broken down into bits, which are then taught in a very specific sequence. The model also tends to include traditional grades, plenty of tests and quizzes, strict (punitive) discipline, competition, and lots of homework. Anything that deviates from this model is often reviled as a fad, with special scorn reserved for efforts to teach social skills or address students’ feelings, to have students learn from one another, to use nontraditional ways of assessing what they can do, as well as to adopt bilingual education, a multicultural curriculum, or a structure that brings together students of different ages or abilities.
Nontraditional or progressive education is defined in part by its divergence from all of this. Here, the point of departure is that kids should be taken seriously. Because learning is regarded as an active process, learners are given an active role. Their questions help to shape the curriculum, and their capacity for thinking critically is honored even as it is honed. In such classrooms, facts and skills are important but not ends in themselves. Rather, they are more likely to be organized around broad themes, connected to real issues, and seen as part of the process of coming to understand ideas from the inside out. A classroom is a place where a community of learners – as opposed to a collection of discrete individuals – engages in discovery and invention, reflection and problem-solving.
These aspects of progressive education have been around for a very long time. For centuries, children learned by doing at least as much as by listening. Hands-on activities sometimes took place in the context of a mentor-apprentice relationship and sometimes in a one-room schoolhouse with plenty of cooperative learning among kids of different ages. Many aspects of the Old School, meanwhile, really aren’t so old: “The isolated skills approach to learning,” for example, “was, in fact, an innovation that started in the 1920s.” 3
What we may as well continue to call the traditional approach (if only to avoid confusion) represents an uneasy blend of behaviorist psychology and conservative social philosophy. The former, associated with such men as B. F. Skinner and Edward L. Thorndike (who never met a test he didn’t like), is based on the idea that people, like other organisms, do only what they have been reinforced for doing. “All behavior is ultimately initiated by the external environment,” 4 as the behaviorists see it – and anything other than behavior, anything that isn’t observable, either isn’t worth our time or doesn’t really exist. Learning is just the acquisition of very specific skills and bits of knowledge, a process that is linear, incremental, measurable. It says the learner should progress from step to step in a predictable sequence, interrupted by frequent testing and reinforcement, with each step getting progressively more challenging.
It’s a straight shot from a theory like that to a reliance on worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests. On the other hand, not all proponents of worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests consider themselves behaviorists. In some cases, traditional educational practices are justified in terms of philosophical or religious beliefs. There is no single seminal figure responsible for an emphasis on order and obedience in the classroom, but the idea that education should consist of transmitting a body of information is today promoted most visibly by E. D. Hirsch Jr., a man best known for specifying what facts every first-grader, second-grader, third-grader, and so on ought to know.
In the case of progressive education, it can safely be said that two 20th-century individuals, John Dewey and Jean Piaget, have shaped the way we think of this movement. Dewey (1859-1952) was a philosopher who disdained the capital-letter abstractions of Truth and Meaning, preferring to see these ideas in the context of real human purposes. Thinking, he argued, is something that emerges from our shared experiences and activities: it is what we do that animates what we know. Dewey was also interested in democracy as a way of living, not just as a form of government. In applying these ideas to education, he made the case that schools shouldn’t be about handing down a collection of static truths to the next generation but about responding to the needs and interests of the students themselves. When you do that, he maintained, you won’t have to bribe, threaten, or otherwise artificially induce them to learn (as is routinely done in traditional classrooms).
Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist, demonstrated that the way children think is qualitatively different from the way adults think and argued that a child’s way of thinking progresses through a series of distinct stages. Later in his life, he began to analyze the nature of learning, describing it as a two-way relationship between a person and the environment. All of us develop theories or perspectives through which we understand everything we encounter, yet those theories are themselves revised on the basis of our experience. Even very young children play an active role in making sense of things, “constructing” reality rather than just acquiring knowledge.
These two basic approaches rarely show up in pure form, with schools being completely traditional or nontraditional. The defining features of traditional education don’t always appear together, or at least not with equal emphasis. Some decidedly Old School teachers assign essays as well as worksheets; others downplay rote memorization. Likewise, some progressive classrooms emphasize individual discovery more than cooperation among students. Proponents of traditional education often complain that the model they favor is on the wane. They’re apt to describe themselves as a brave minority under siege, fighting an uphill battle for old-fashioned methods that have been driven out of the schools by an educational establishment united in its desire for radical change. 5
Such claims are understandable as a political strategy; it’s always rhetorically advantageous to position yourself as outside the establishment and to describe whatever you oppose as “fashionable.” To those of us who spend time in real schools, though, claims about the dominance of progressive teaching represent an inversion of the truth so audacious as to be downright comical.
Consider: Just as we did, our kids spend most of their time in school with children their own age. Most high school instruction is still divided into 45- or 50-minute periods. Students still have very little to say about what they will do and how they will learn. Good behavior or meritorious academic performance, as determined unilaterally by adults, is still rewarded; deviations are still punished. Grades are still handed out; awards assemblies are still held. Students are still “tracked,” particularly in the older grades, so that some take honors and advanced placement courses while others get “basic” this and “remedial” that. Kids may be permitted to learn in groups periodically, but at the end of the day eyes must still be kept on one’s own paper. Even from a purely physical standpoint, schools today look much as they did decades ago. 6
Education, like other social institutions, is said to go through pendulum-like swings, from left to right and back again. 7 We are now living through what will surely be classified as a particularly conservative, even reactionary, era in American education. But the extent of experimentation with alternative models even during the more progressive periods has been exaggerated. As the educational historian Larry Cuban has argued, “Basic ways of schooling children have been remarkably durable over the last hundred years. “His review of “almost 7,000 different classroom accounts and results from studies in numerous settings revealed the persistent occurrence of teacher-centered practices since the turn of the century.” 8 (We used to copy facts from the World Book; today, our kids download them from the Web. So much for the educational revolution.)
Shortly before his death, Dewey reflected sadly on how little of his vision had ever made it into the schools, how the changes that did occur were merely “atmospheric” and hadn’t “really penetrated and permeated the foundations of the educational institution.” The “fundamental authoritarianism” of that institution, he remarked, had remained in tact. 9 Other observers have agreed, with one historian writing, “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the 20th century unless one realizes that Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.” 10
If there is one area where nontraditional schooling has had some impact, it has been the teaching of reading and writing in the early grades. But the idea that old-fashioned methods have been abandoned in favor of the more progressive approach known as Whole Language is patently false. Indeed, one expert estimated that only about 5% of American primary-grade teachers could be described as really following the philosophy of Whole Language. 11
Even that low number may be dropping as conservative opponents succeed in convincing public officials to back their position with the force of law. Educators from coast to coast “have been faced with increasingly prescriptive mandates [regarding] the way children are taught to read.” 12 For example, in just two years, 1996 and 1997, state legislators across the country introduced 67 phonics bills. To date, at least 10 states have enacted such laws, a result of lobbying by some of the very people who ordinarily denounce the encroachment of Big Government. 13 In California, politicians have even succeeded in requiring people who train teachers to take what is basically a phonics loyalty oath. 14 Thus, whatever popularity Whole Language manages to earn may be undone by people outside the field of education who won’t allow it to be used.
This reflects a pattern that extends beyond how children are taught to read. Even where mild, tentative efforts have been made to change how students are taught and tested, many of these reforms subsequently get rolled back. Look at the way students and schools are evaluated: a definitive survey published in 1997 reported that politicians across the country have “pushed to set aside innovative approaches to assessment and to return to commercially available, norm-referenced tests.” 15
POOR TEACHING FOR POOR KIDS
One place where traditional teaching rules with a vengeance is in “urban” or “inner-city” schools, which are generally euphemisms for those attended by children of color from low-income families. In 1977, one writer observed that “the ghetto has been a hotbed for the basics.” 16 It was still true twenty years later: “The highly traditional techniques of instruction are prevalent among lower-status groups.” Now, however, minority children are also more likely than their peers to spend time taking multiple-choice standardized tests and to be taught a low-level curriculum designed around those tests – all in the name of “raising standards,” of course. 17
Some people may favor subjecting poor African-American and Latino children to “teaching styles that stress drill, practice, and other mind-numbing strategies” because they assume that “such children lack ability.”18 Others swear that they simply have the best interests of these kids at heart when they make them fill in blanks and even chant answers in unison. Lately, this kind of prescription for inner-city schools has been endorsed by a number of mainstream journalists and politicians. One reporter, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998, endorsed a packaged drill-and-skill program called Success for All that is “used almost exclusively in poor schools,” remarking that it may be “punitive to local school boards, principals, and teachers – but they had it coming.” 19 (He doesn’t say what the children have done to deserve it.) The mayor of Jersey City, NJ, also waxed enthusiastic about a pedagogical approach that relies on “constant drill and repetition.” In his words, “It’s not that hard to give answers if someone just told you. They memorize back and know and get used to a lot of A’s on quizzes.” So would he send his own kids to the kind of school he is advocating for those who are poor and Black? Well, no. “‘Those schools are best for certain children,’ he said.” 20
The question is not whether inner-city schools are in trouble. The question is whether they’re in trouble because they’re insufficiently traditional or overly devoted to higher-level thinking. If the problem lies elsewhere, then more emphasis on basic skills is unlikely to make things better. Indeed, given what the research says about that approach, we may be witnessing an example of destroying these schools in order to save them. Dorothy Strickland, an African-American educator, has remarked that “skills-based instruction, the type to which most children of color are subjected, tends to foster low-level uniformity and subvert academic potential.” 21 Thus, the more they fill in worksheets on command, the further they fall behind affluent kids who are less tightly controlled and more likely to get lessons that help them understand ideas.
Many traditionalists insist that our schools are failing. Let’s assume, despite some data to the contrary, that here they have a point. In that case, we’ll be better able to understand why there’s a problem if we begin with a truthful account of what’s really going on in our schools. If, as the evidence indicates, anything that might reasonably be called progressive is actually a rarity in American education, it becomes rather difficult to blame our problems on these progressive practices. Indeed, if students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices.
THE DEMAND FOR TOUGHER STANDARDS
“Motherhood” can be a code for keeping women out of the workplace, and apple pie is loaded with fat and sugar. These days, anyone looking for a cause without controversy would do better to come out in favor of higher standards for our schools. It’s a safe bet that almost any audience will vigorously applaud such a sentiment, since it is widely agreed that our educational system is in deep trouble and that raising standards is the solution. On the other hand, whenever agreement is a bit too quick and consensus a little too broad, it’s worth taking another look.
People who talk about educational “standards” use the term indifferent ways. Sometimes they’re referring to guidelines for teaching, the implication being that we should change the nature of instruction -a horizontal shift, if you will. (In the case of the standards drafted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM] in 1989, for example, the idea was to shift away from isolated facts and memorized procedures toward conceptual understanding and problem solving.) By contrast, when you hear someone say that we need to “raise standards,” that represents a vertical shift, a claim that students ought to know more, do more, perform better.
This can get confusing because discussions about standards sometimes are limited to only one of these meanings, sometimes flip-flop between them, and sometimes involve an implicit appeal to one in order to press for the other. Most of the talk about standards today falls into the second category, and that is my primary concern here. Thus, in expressing doubts about this approach to educational reform, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t have any guidelines for what goes on in classrooms, and I don’t mean that our current approaches shouldn’t be changed. Indeed, the new standards that began to appear in the 1980s (including those from the NCTM) represent what I believe are significant improvements in thinking about how to teach various subjects. (Interestingly, those reforms are often opposed by some of the very people who argue most strenuously for ratcheting up the standards. You might say they want vertical movement without horizontal movement.)
Even the idea of vertical movement seems hard to argue against, at least in the abstract. Don’t we want schools to be of high quality and students to be able to do many things? Of course. But the current demand for Tougher Standards, particularly by politicians and business people, carries with it a bundle of assumptions about the proper role of schools, the nature and causes of failure, and the way students learn. A number of people (mostly educators) have come to view with concern, even alarm, these increasingly strident demands (mostly from noneducators) to raise standards. Almost anything can be done to students and to schools, no matter how ill-considered, as long as it is done in the name of “raising standards” or “accountability.”
The remarkable consensus around Tougher Standards is closely connected to the perpetuation of Old School styles of teaching mentioned earlier. Holding schools “accountable” for meeting “standards” usually means requiring them to live up to conventional measures of student performance, and traditional kinds of instruction are most closely geared to – and thus perpetuated by – these measures.
The dominant philosophy of fixing schools consists of saying, in effect, that “what we’re doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we’ll have a better country.” 22
Alfie Kohn is a former teacher turned author and lecturer. He has written seven books on education, including “No Contest: The Case Against Competition.” Educated at Brown University and The University of Chicago, he now lives in the Boston Area.
The above is excerpted and condensed from the introduction to Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Schools Our Children Deserve (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Reprinted with permission.
1. Kamii, Constance, Faye B. Clark, and Ann Dominick. “The Six National Goals: A Road to Disappointment.” Phi Delta Kappan, May 1994, p. 675.
2. Everything quoted in this paragraph appears in Pines, Burton Yale. Back to Basics. New York: Morrow, 1982, pp. 112-15, 119. For another, very similar definition, see Brodinsky, Ben. “Back to the Basics: The Movement and Its Meaning.” Phi Delta Kappan, March 1977, pp. 522-27.
3. Zemelman, Steven, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde. Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools. 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998), p. 287.
4. This is from the behaviorist Alyce M. Dickinson, who puts the phrase intrinsic motivation between quotation marks in the title of her article, as though to call the very existence of the phenomenon into question. (This is a telltale sign of Skinnerian orthodoxy.) (“The Detrimental Effects of Extrinsic Reinforcement on ‘Intrinsic Motivation.'” Behavior Analyst 12, 1989, p. 1-15.) Nevertheless, Skinner and his acolytes insist that their theory sees the learner as active because he or she (or it) overtly responds to environmental stimuli, emitting certain behaviors that are reinforced. But, as a group of scholars hasten to explain, this is quite different from what cognitive theorists mean by active. “Rather than passively receiving and recording incoming information, the learner actively interprets and imposes meaning through the lenses of his or her existing knowledge structures, working to make sense of the world.” (Putnam, Ralph T., Magdalene Lampert, and Penelope L. Peterson. “Alternative Perspectives on Knowing Mathematics in Elementary Schools.” In Review of Research in Education, vol. 16, edited by Courtney B. Cazden. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1990.)
5. E. D. Hirsch Jr. refers with a straight face to “decades of progressivist intellectual dominance.” (The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 49.) William Damon, one of the many conservative education professors whose collective existence belies conspiratorial claims about how radicals have taken over the field, sounds a similar theme: “child-centered doctrines are fast dominating schooling” and “the constructivist perspective has come to dominate the educational scene.” (Greater Expectations. New York: Free Press, 1995, pp. 102, 104.) The same claims are made by right-wing talk-show hosts, newspaper and magazine columnists, and others too numerous to list. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of them offer empirical evidence to document these assertions, although the same few anecdotes of nontraditional classrooms get passed around and repeated endlessly.
6. Many of them look the same because they are the same. But even recently constructed schools typically have the same walkway to a central entrance, the same flagpole, the same brick construction. Inside, meanwhile, Linda Darling-Hammond describes how it’s still the case that “the office is the first thing one sees, the quietest and best-outfitted part of the school, a forbidding place with its long high counter separating the office staff from others who enter. The next sight is a glass-enclosed trophy case and a bulletin board of announcements about meetings, sports events, and rules to be followed. Long clear corridors of egg-crate classrooms are broken by banks of lockers and an occasional tidy bulletin board. Classrooms look alike, teachers’ desks at the front of each room commanding the rows of smaller desks for students.” A high school in particular is likely to set aside most of its public display areas for documenting how its students have defeated those from other schools and which of its students are better than others. (The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools That Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997, p. 149.)
7. For a challenge to this view from a group of optimistic progressives, see Zemelman et al., pp. 276-77: “The cyclic vacillations between authoritarian and progressive education in this culture are not random pendulum swings, but advances and retreats along a battlefront — the playing out, over a huge span of time, of a war for the soul of schooling in this society. In the end, the student-centered, developmental approach will win out over the authoritarian model because it parallels the direction in which civilization itself progresses. … Each time the progressive set of ideas comes back, it gains strength and coherence from the new research and practice that connects with it, and each time it appears it exerts more influence on the schools before it is once again suppressed.” I don’t know if this assessment is accurate, but I’d certainly like to think so.
8. The first quotation is from Cuban, Larry. “A Fundamental Puzzle of School Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan, January 1988, p. 341; the second from Cuban, Larry. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. New York: Longman, 1984, p. 238.
9. Dewey, John. Introduction to The Use of Resources in Education by Elsie Ripley Clapp. 1952. Reprinted in Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. New York: Teachers College Press, 1959.
10. Ellen Lagemann is quoted in Gardner, Howard. The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. New York: Basic, 1991, p. 196. (Exactly the same contrast between Dewey and Thorndike — and the same conclusion — is offered by Farnham-Diggory, Sylvia. Schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 28.) Even in the mid-1970s, supposedly a high mark for progressive teaching, David Hawkins (The Informed Vision: Essays on Learning and Human Nature. New York: Agathon Press, 1974, p. 162) observed that Dewey actually had an “almost negligible influence in our educational theory and practice.” At least one scholar, Lawrence Cremin, would dispute that view. Perhaps the most persuasive conclusion is that “Dewey’s educational philosophy is widely cited as theory” but has almost always been “widely ignored in practice” (Sharan, Shlomo. “The Group Investigation Approach to Cooperative Learning: Theoretical Foundation.” In Perspectives on Small Group Learning: Theory and Practice, edited by Mark Brubacher, Ryder Payne, and Kemp Rickett. Oakville, Ont.: Rubicon, 1990, p. 33).
11. Battista, Michael T. “The Mathematical Miseducation of America’s Youth: Ignoring Research and Scientific Study in Education.” Phi Delta Kappan, February 1999, p. 426.
12. Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy. “More State Moving to Make Phonics the Law.” Education Week, 27 May 1998, p. 4.
13. Paterson, Frances R. A. “The Christian Right and the Prophonics Movement.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, April 1998. Moreover, she found that such bills are disproportionately introduced by Republican lawmakers in states where the Christian Right “has substantial or dominant influence in the state’s Republican party.”
14. Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy. “Limitations on Approved Topics for Reading Sessions Rile Teacher Trainers.” Education Week, 5 November 1997, p. 18. The California state legislature now mandates that professional development for reading teachers must be limited to traditional phonics methods; instructors must sign a form stating that they will not teach other approaches. Those who work with teachers are prohibited from using “any program that promotes or uses reading instruction methodologies that emphasize contextual clues in lieu of fluent decoding, or systematically uses or encourages inventive [sic] spelling techniques in the teaching of writing.”
15. Bond, Linda, Edward Roeber, and David Braskamp. Trends in State Student Assessment Programs: Fall 1996. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers, 1997, p. 28. An updated report the following year noted that “the number of states that use alternative forms of assessment exclusively has decreased over the last five years” (Bond, Linda, Edward Roeber, and Selena Connealy. Trends in State Student Assessment Programs: Fall 1997. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers, 1998, p. 13).
16. Brodinsky, Ben. “Back to the Basics: The Movement and Its Meaning.” Phi Delta Kappan, March 1977, p. 523.
17.Feinberg, Walter. “Educational Manifestos and the New Fundamentalism.” Educational Researcher, November 1997, p. 32. On the use of standardized tests, see p. 92.
18. Berliner, David C. and Bruce J. Biddle. The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995, p. 306.
19. Lemann, Nicholas. “Ready, Read!” Atlantic Monthly, November 1998, p. 104 ..
20. Winerip, Michael. “Schools for Sale.” New York Times Magazine, 14 June 1998, p. 47. The mayor, Bret Schundler, a white Republican Harvard alumnus, enrolled his own daughter in private school. In the same vein, Jonathan Kozol dryly describes the conservative educational theorist Chester Finn’s opposition to allocating money for the purpose of reducing class size. That “is ‘not a very prudent investment strategy,’ said Mr. Finn, who sent his daughter to Exeter, where class size is 13.”
21. Strickland is quoted in Routman, Regie. Literacy at the Crossroads: Crucial Talk About Reading, Writing, and Other Teaching Dilemmas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996, p. 43.
22. Daniels, Harvey. “Whole Language: What’s the Fuss?” Rethinking Schools, Winter 1993, p. 4. The version of school reform “geared toward accountability and testing … actually doesn’t have any reform in it at all,” he adds. “It doesn’t say you should teach this differently, you should add this content. It doesn’t say anything about the substance or the process of schooling. It offers no resources. It doesn’t offer any professional development for teachers. Instead, it issues threats.”