[Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen here, here, here, here, and here.]
Andy’s odyssey: Part six
The greatest friction between contemporary education reform and conservatism is the former’s obsession with “new” and the latter’s deep skepticism of it.
This conflict has its roots in the very different worldviews of progressives and conservatives. Those on the political right generally seek to preserve, believing that longstanding practices, policies, and institutions possess the wisdom of ages. They have evolved and grown robust. In Yuval Levin’s words, they “developed through years of trial and error and adapted to their circumstances.” They possess stores of social capital that facilitate the healthy functioning of society.
Progressives generally seek to dramatically change, aspiring to uproot society’s injustices and inefficiencies, possessing great faith in our ability to create something new and better from scratch. This frame of mind among America’s political left is clear and consistent.
Thomas Paine famously wrote in Common Sense of “our power to begin the world over again.” The FDR museum celebrates how the former president “fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the lives of the American people.” Of her onetime boss and mentor, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently noted, “The country fundamentally changes as a result of LBJ’s presidency.” As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama talked of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” and Michelle Obama said in that same year, “We are going to have to change our traditions, our history.”
Just consider how tightly education reform has embraced the progressive ethos of change.
We have NewSchools Venture Fund, New Schools for New Orleans, and New Schools for Baton Rouge. We have New Classrooms, New Profit, and New Visions for Public Schools. We have New Leaders, Knewton, and the New Teacher Center. Before rebranding as “TNTP,” it was The New Teacher Project.
We have variations on this theme—“new” by other names. Constructing a new future with EdBuild; exploring, settling, and cultivating new lands with Education Pioneers and “greenfield schooling”; beginning anew with Startup: Education, Starting Fresh, Innovate Public Schools, Innovative Schools, and Policy Innovators in Education.
To be clear, many of these organizations do invaluable work, and I strongly support new-schools strategies. In fact, recent research has shown that such efforts in NYC under Joel Klein were “dramatically successful.” Other bodies of research attest to the difficulty old organizations have adapting to new conditions and to the systemic value of new starts.
But our fixation with new is remarkable—and not always for the best. Bear in mind that “change” can take the form of rediscovering the past and revitalizing forgotten successes. This is the essence of the Renaissance. Given America’s astonishing historical accomplishments, you’d think harkening back to our past would be ed reform’s go-to move. But few are our organizations with this bent (e.g., National Heritage Academies, The Founders Academy).
Most troubling, though, is our seeming obliviousness to the costs of fetishizing fresh. Relentlessly prizing the new implies a cavalier disregard of all that exists and, by extension, those who are part of it. It suggests that those fond of the way things are must be misguided. It’s a tacit slight of those who came before us and built what we have. And it devalues the social capital that adheres to venerable institutions.
Through this lens of the costs of siding with new over old, consider the optics and implications of the following:
- Secretary Duncan has spent more than $1 billion on “innovation” through the i3 program, but never in his six years in office has he visited a primary or secondary urban Catholic school, even though they’ve been anchoring low-income neighborhoods and helping underserved kids for generations.
- The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “There’s no reward for restraint on education reform.”
- Enormous investments have been made in new technologies, flipping classrooms, and next-generation instruction.
- Ed-reform advocates unceasingly praise new standards, new assessments, and new educator-evaluation systems.
- A recent study argues that new governance models can disenfranchise certain groups.
- Recently, concerns have been raised about closing and replacing community-developed charter schools.
In our earnestness to improve the lives of America’s kids, especially the most disadvantaged boys and girls, our field has become terribly unbalanced. We have consistently picked the progressive path (with its pitfalls) and ignored the virtues of conservatism and the benefits of preservation.
But the question remains: Is it possible to combine the two? Can the strengths of both left and right be leveraged in a single bold reform effort?
Yes. Indeed, the two were adeptly balanced in one of the greatest achievements of the last three centuries. That story is at the heart of the next installment in this series.