What Today’s Educational Conservatives Need to Say Instead

I don’t see any good reason why they would listen to me. But if today’s conservative pundits and intellectuals are really serious about identifying the “future direction of American education,” they need to come to terms with the elephant in the conservatives’ room. At the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution at least, they seem to be doing the opposite.

This isn’t only a conservative problem. Progressives like me need to be more willing to remind ourselves of the unpopular truths of the progressive tradition, too. We need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that excesses of campus left-wing Puritanism do not come out of nowhere. When smart students feel the need to exhibit their devotion and purity to radical egalitarian ideals, they are simply speaking the logical conclusions of the progressive tradition. At least, it’s ONE logical conclusion.

 

 

And when conservative intellectuals opine about American education, they need to do more to acknowledge their own history. As I argued in my book about the history of American educational conservatism, one idea has been awkwardly ignored and muffled by American conservatives. That hasn’t made it go away. Rather, it has only made it more pressing for conservatives to address it more forthrightly and explicitly.

I’m not surprised to see that they aren’t.

In a series they call “Education 20/20,” the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution have brought a series of conservative speakers, thinkers, and policy-makers to Washington DC to tell one another what they want to hear.

For example, according to Chester Finn, the kick-off lecture by Heather Mac Donald warned that the real solution to school discipline problems had to come from addressing students’ “lack of self-control.” Speakers such as Ian Rowe told the conservative crowd that the main problem was not race, not class, but rather dysfunctional family structures, “particularly the presence or absence of two married parents.” Other speakers hoped schools could do more to teach traditional values, including

character, emotional well-being, and personal behavior, as well as help in making choices and following up on them.

What’s wrong with all that? Honestly, nothing at all. I think we can all agree that students in school should learn to control their own behavior. We all probably agree that healthy families are absolutely required for healthy schools. And all of us—even progressive history teachers like me that conservatives have always loathed—want to teach children to love America, “warts and all, yes, but also replete with heroes, principles, and triumphs.”

So where’s the beef? Why can’t we all agree on these goals and ideals?

There’s one obvious problem with events like this one. And it is a big one; one that conservatives need to address openly and bravely if they ever want to gain real traction in designing school reform that works. Namely, conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that their ideas have always been used as cover for racist policies.

I’m not accusing any of the speakers here of racism. Unlike some of my allies and colleagues, I don’t believe that conservatives are scheming to cover up their own racism. As I think we all should, I give my conservative friends the benefit of the doubt when they say they really want to heal racism’s ugly legacies, not promote it.

 

As the folks at Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution lament, when conservatives were able to get broad support for their policies, they have scored big successes. In their words,

Twenty years ago, conservative ideas were gaining traction in K–12 education. Charter schools were opening all over the place, vouchers were finally being tried, academic standards were rising, results-based accountability had become the watchword in policy circles, and reformers were taking the idea of “character education” seriously.

Why did charters and vouchers score so big in the 1990s? Because conservative activists were able to make common cause with center-left reformers to pitch them as a real solution for low-income, non-white families.

These days, lambasting non-white students for lacking self-control and non-white families for lacking proper structure is not likely to gain any sympathy outside of conservative circles. Talking about focusing on teaching American “ideals” is likely to be ignored by non-conservatives as mere cover for “Making America Great Again.”

If conservatives really want to get another taste of reform influence, they need to take the brave step and acknowledge the legacy of their own campaigns. Instead of saying “We’re not racist, but…” they need to say “These ideas WERE used by racists, but here’s why they are good anyway.”

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The REAL Fight about School Reform

It’s not about charters. It’s not about vouchers. It’s not about the power of unions or the role of standardized tests. The fundamental disagreement at the heart of our protracted inability to improve our public schools comes from something else entirely. As a recent commentary from the free-marketeers at Flypaper makes clear, this basic disagreement fuels big dilemmas about school funding and function.

Recently, Ian Rowe made some powerfully true points about this tricky truth at the core of school reform. But he also demonstrated how easy it is to draw some powerfully false conclusions. Rowe worked briefly at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is reacting to the Gates’s recent self-examination of their twenty-first century school reform efforts.

As Rowe correctly points out, spending money—even Microsoft-style bajillions—on silver-bullet school reforms will never be enough to correct the glaring and lamentable differences between public schools for children from affluent families and public schools for low-income families. That is, simply by paying for new school formulas such as smaller schools, more invasive standardized testing, or new subject standards, school reform will never achieve its real goals. Even with new computers or standardized tests, schools for low-income students will never offer the same opportunities and life chances that richer students get.

Rowe is 100% correct that such silver-bullet attempts will always fail because they get the school-reform equation backwards. We shouldn’t think about using schools to equalize a ruthlessly hierarchical society—we first need to pay attention to the reasons that society itself is divided between haves and have-nots.

After that, however, Rowe goes off the rails. His intellectual crash-and-burn illustrates the real dilemma at the heart of school reform.

For Rowe, the real problem with educational inequality has its roots with the culture of low-income Americans. If schools are to offer real opportunities for people to climb up the economic ladder, we need to focus first and foremost on changing that culture. Too many families, Rowe notes, have only one parent. And too many families suffer from immature and even immoral parenting.

To heal America’s divisions, Rowe argues, we need to encourage “parent accountability.” Too many adults in low-income families, Rowe insists, mar their children’s chances at a good education because the adults themselves dawdle in a “state of perpetual adolescence.”

Rowe’s prescription is simple. Schools must change the culture of young people. As he puts it,

Educators can teach students the sequence of life choices—education, work, marriage, then children—that is highly correlated with economic and life success, and that would empower students to overcome substantial race- and class-based institutional barriers.

Rowe is entirely correct that school reform will always fail when it tries to use flashy new methods to offer students from low-income families the same life choices enjoyed by students from more affluent homes. But he is woefully, dangerously incorrect when he suggests that the answer is to use schools to teach children not to be like their parents.

Our latest research, after all, shows that schools are not the biggest factor in economic mobility. That is, success in getting through high school and maybe college to get a better job than your parent had is mostly not do to the schools themselves, but other factors. And Rowe is right that a big part of those outside factors is family structure.Rothstein

The real disagreement at the heart of our school-reform dilemma is about what comes next. By and large, Americans don’t like to talk about the real problem. We don’t like to talk about the fact that some Americans don’t have an equal shot at the American dream. We don’t like to acknowledge the obvious truism that band-aid reforms to some schools here and there are laughably inadequate solutions.

We can’t even agree on what poverty means. For many Americans, especially conservatives and religious Americans, the main cause of poverty is “individual failings.” If only people worked harder and delayed gratification, the thinking goes, they would move up to better jobs and nicer neighborhoods. As recent surveys show, the rest of us tend to blame social structure and “difficult circumstances.” The most important factor in persistent poverty—in this way of thinking—is the way society itself discriminates against poor people, squeezing them into worse houses, with worse schools and worse jobs.

Unless and until we can figure out this persistent disagreement about what it means to be poor in America, our sporadic attempts at school reform will continue to disappoint. Like Bill Gates, well-meaning but poorly informed reformers will wonder where all their money went with so little to show for it.