Will the REAL Conservative Fan of the Common Core Please Stand Up

Are the new(ish) Common Core Learning Standards “conservative?” Some say yes, some say no. But even among those who say yes, we see a split. Leading conservative educational thinker Sol Stern offers one “conservative” vision of the Common Core, while Michael Petrilli gives another. And their differences can tell us a lot about the complicated world of conservative educational thinking.

Among some conservatives—some of them literally from an earlier generation—the new standards seem obviously objectionable, simply because of their provenance. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, emerged from the 1970s to bash the Common Core as a power grab by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.” Some pundits from a newer generation agree. Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin warn that the new standards are turning American kids into “guinea pigs.”

But among those conservatives who like the Common Core—or at least think the new standards are the least-bad option—we see different emphases. Both Stern and Petrilli agree that the new standards will offer a more rigorous academic experience. But Stern suggests that such rigor is the core of the conservative case for the Core, while Petrilli says that academic rigor is only one aspect of the conservative argument in favor of the new standards.

Writing in the pages of the New Criterion, Stern defends the Common Core as the best “chance of restoring traditional academic content to the classroom.” As Stern explains,

As a conservative, I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The Standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level. The most hopeful part of the new Standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents the public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country’s history and its republican heritage. Contrary to the conservatives’ complaints, the Common Core is, in fact, a document that the founders would approve.

Michael Petrilli does not disagree. He thinks the Common Core will indeed help re-introduce academic rigor to public schools. But as he argued a while back in the pages of the Weekly Standard along with co-author Chester Finn, the real score of the Core is elsewhere. As Petrilli tells the story, the road to the Common Core began back in the days of Bill Bennett, Reagan’s second secretary of education.

Petrilli argues that the new standards fulfill a generation-long conservative plan to make schools more measurable, more interchangeable. With such standards in place, free-market conservatives have thought, public schools could be freed from the dead hand of left-leaning teachers’ unions. Parents could be offered a market-friendly menu of charter schools and voucher-funded private schools.

In Petrilli’s words,

Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

We might describe this difference in conservative emphases as a difference between a “classroom” approach to conservative school reform and a “systemic” approach. Or maybe a “traditionalist” versus a “free-market” approach.  And, again, we don’t want to make these plans sound entirely exclusive.

But it seems as if Stern is arguing that the heart of “conservative” reform must be with an intellectual change in the way kids are taught. Stern excoriates pedagogical ideas such as “balanced literacy.” Instead, Stern celebrates the approach of anti-progressive E.D. Hirsch. Instead of looking at structural reforms, Hirsch and Stern wanted conservative reforms to begin in the classroom. Students needed to learn basic cultural information, to focus on “Core Knowledge.”

Petrilli, on the other hand, emphasizes a different approach. Academic rigor is important, Petrilli argues, but it is only one of the reasons for conservatives to support the Core. At least as important, Petrilli says, is the boost the standards will give to school choice. Without what Petrilli calls “true external standards,” it will always be impossible to introduce a true educational marketplace. After all, how can parents know what school is the best if there are not measures that compare schools in a fair way?

In any case, these conservative pleas in favor of the Common Core might be too little, too late. Recent polls have indicated plummeting popular support for the new standards. In spite of the smart arguments of intellectuals like Stern and Petrilli, parents might decide that these standards are just too iffy.


Progressive Education Hurts Poor Kids: E.D. Hirsch’s “Wealth of Words”

Progressive Education hurts poor kids.  For those familiar with E.D. Hirsch’s work over the past twenty-five years, that argument won’t sound new.

In a recent piece in the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Professor Hirsch lays out his case for why progressive attitudes and policy toward vocabulary education inflicts the most damage on those it claims to help: students from families with fewer resources.

Hirsch, a literary critic and scholar, first came to fame with his 1987 book Cultural Literacy.  The book and Hirsch shared a public career somewhat similar to Allan Bloom and his Closing of the American Mind.  Though both authors identified as politically and culturally liberal, their books became favorites of cultural conservatives.  Like Bloom, Hirsch claimed that American education had “progressed” in woefully misguided directions.

In brief, Hirsch argued that every American ought to master a certain core of cultural knowledge.  Critics charged Hirsch of elitism and even bigotry.  Insisting on an exclusive body of important cultural knowledge, critics insisted, blocked out too many vital cultural voices, voices that had not made the canon but that represented authentic elements of the real American experience.

In Hirsch’s new essay, “A Wealth of Words,” he argues that the best way to improve life chances for all Americans is to insist on a rigorous and systematic curriculum of vocabulary improvement.  In a nutshell, here is the argument:

1.) College degrees represent the best single path to economic well-being.

2.) The verbal section of the SAT college-entrance exam is largely a vocabulary test.

3.) Therefore, to bring people out of poverty, we need to improve vocabulary education.

Most interesting to ILYBYGTH readers will be Hirsch’s idiosyncratic combination of an attack on “progressive education” with a progressive-sounding prescription for improved schooling.

Like nearly every conservative educational activist of the past fifty years, Hirsch takes progressive education to task for dumbing-down American education.  As I’ve argued in an essay in Teachers College Record, a variety of leading conservative educational activists—with very different ideas about education—all agreed that America’s educational system had been hijacked by progressivism.

In Hirsch’s telling, this progressive coup took place roughly one hundred years ago.  This “well-meant but inadequate” progressivism, according to Hirsch, included the following poison pills:

“optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience.” 

Once these “progressive educational theories” took over school publishing and teaching, vocabulary education suffered bitterly, Hirsch argues.  In response, Hirsch calls for “an intellectual revolution . . . to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s.”  Most important, Hirsch believes, is the need to overcome the notion that schools should not teach factual knowledge.  For a century, the “progressive” notion that school should teach students how to learn, instead of mere facts, has come to dominate education policy.  That, Hirsch believes, is a terrible mistake.

For those familiar with the twentieth-century development of conservative educational activism, it is easy to see how Hirsch could have become a favorite of conservatives.  Educational conservatism has largely centered itself on the notion that schools must remain true to their traditional purpose; schools must dedicate themselves to transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next.

However, a closer read of Hirsch’s prescriptions might give some conservatives pause.  True enough, Hirsch calls for a renewed focus on teaching children a rich vocabulary.  He insists that an emphasis on “literacy” rather than good “literature” hurts the life chances of those students who need schooling the most.

But Hirsch also calls for a profound investment in government-run and tax-funded preschooling.  He cites French studies of intensive instruction for students as young as two.  Such intense schooling, Hirsch claims, will allow students from lower-income homes to match the educational opportunities of those from more affluent ones.  Furthermore, Hirsch dismisses the notion that improved vocabulary instruction will come from more time spent with word drill.  Instead, Hirsch advocates “domain immersion,” in which students learn vocabulary as part of an immersion in interesting and important reading.

Thus, in his goal and his method, Hirsch still sounds provocatively “progressive.”  Yet even in his outlet, the conservative City Journal, we can see that Hirsch still finds his most eager audience among conservatives.  In the end, this might come as no surprise.  No critic of progressivism is more appealing than one who comes from the progressive camp itself.  In education as anywhere, a whistle-blower can claim a certain credibility others cannot.

In his recent essay, Hirsch continues his long career as progressive education’s leading whistle-blower.  The best way, Hirsch insists, to determine whether any education policy will help poor kids is simple.  We do not need elaborate justifications of “pedagogies of the oppressed” or “dreamkeeping” teaching strategies.  All we need do, Hirsch argues, is ask one simple question: “Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders?”