This major essay comprises one of the concluding chapters of our new book, "How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow's Schools." Levin brilliantly—and soberingly—explains what conservatives have forfeited in the quest for bipartisan education reform. He contends that future efforts by conservatives to revitalize American education must emphasize “the formation of students as human beings and citizens,” including “habituation in virtue, inculcation in tradition, [and] veneration of the high and noble.”
This major essay by Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute and National Affairs comprises one of the concluding chapters in our new book, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow's Schools. In it, Levin brilliantly—and soberingly—explains what conservatives have forfeited in the quest for bipartisan education reform. He contends that future efforts by conservatives to revitalize American education must emphasize “the formation of students as human beings and citizens,” including “habituation in virtue, inculcation in tradition, [and] veneration of the high and noble.”
—Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Public policy debates about primary and secondary education are oddly disoriented in our time. At almost any point in the 1990s or 2000s, it would not have been hard to say what these debates were about and what reformers were eager to achieve. Higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading skills were at the center of it all—whether they were understood as means of imposing accountability on schools, teachers, and administrators; as ways to measure racial gaps in educational achievement; or as a strategy to help America produce students and workers on par with its foreign competitors.
If scores turned out to be too low, in relative or absolute terms, an argument would emerge between the left and right flanks of the reform coalition about whether more competition might help or more money for public schooling could address deficiencies. There was much talk of “accountability.” But that debate happened within the framework of a broadly bipartisan coalition focused on quantifiable achievement scores. That coalition had opponents to its left and to its right, but it involved leading education experts in both political camps, and leading politicians of both parties were willing to play ball.
That era of the reform coalition did achieve some worthy, if modest, improvements in American education. Test scores increased some, especially early in that period. The charter-school movement is stronger, the idea of accountability for schools and educators is more widely accepted, and there is now a more equitable distribution of public-education funding within states—so that differences in local property-tax revenue are not as decisive as they once were. There is a fair bit for both the left and the right to appreciate in these accomplishments.
But the era of the reform coalition also exacted some real costs. Above all, it made American education policy awfully clinical and technocratic, at times blinding some of those involved in education debates to the deepest human questions at stake—social, moral, cultural, and political questions that cannot be separated from how we think about teaching and learning. This has meant less of a focus on public schooling as a source of solidarity in American life, which was once a powerful theme on the left in particular. And it has meant less of an emphasis on character formation and civic education, which were once fundamental to the right’s way of thinking about schooling.
Whatever its costs and its benefits, however, the era of the education reform coalition seems now to be behind us. The coalition broke down from both directions. The fight over Common Core drained it of energy from the right, as the case for accountability—which began as the predicate for school choice—came to be identified instead (rightly or wrongly) with an effort to consolidate and homogenize American education. Meanwhile, the resurgence of the teachers unions as a force to reckon with in Democratic Party politics undermined the reform coalition from the left. And the intense polarization of our political culture has increasingly made bipartisanship of the sort that characterized the reform coalition impossible to sustain. The reform era that lasted from the early 1990s through the beginning of the 2010s is therefore effectively over.
What will follow it as a political matter will probably at first be a period of gridlock and dysfunction. Much the same can be said about the politics of many other policy arenas. Our national politics, and even state-level politics in too many places, just isn’t focused on public policy for the time being. But what will follow the reform era as an intellectual matter—in the work of education reformers, and as preparation for the next constructive phase of education policy, whenever it might come—is a more interesting question.
Frustrated by the collapse of the reform coalition but also liberated from its constraints, the right and left will probably take somewhat different directions in education-policy thinking in the coming years. For that reason, it remains useful to consider education policy and politics in terms of left and right. In fact, it may be that the deepest differences between the most intellectually coherent forms of the American left and right actually emerge most clearly around questions of education, and not by coincidence. And for each camp, the concerns that were put aside for the sake of working together in the reform coalition seem likely to be those that now come to the fore.
Some reformers on the right would argue that full-bore school choice itself was put aside to make some bipartisanship possible. But that perspective may itself be a function of the intellectual inhibitions engendered by the reform coalition—it is effectively a way of seeing education policy as a set of questions about modes of accountability. Certainly, more could have been done to advance the choice agenda in recent decades. Especially at the national level, accountability was separated from choice, and the latter was often sacrificed for the former. Margaret Spellings was famously willing (even eager) to leave private-school choice behind in her negotiations with Democrats early in the George W. Bush years. But in the states and at the local level, the movement for parental control saw real progress. Both charter schooling and private-school choice remained—and remain—near the center of the conservative education agenda.
To see what conservative educational priorities were truly put aside in the era of the reform coalition, we would have to really put ourselves outside the accountability and achievement framework and remind ourselves that the emphasis on accountability was itself a concession of sorts. What really couldn’t be talked about in these decades was the role of schooling in the molding of the souls of rising citizens—rather than just the minds of future workers. Both civic education and character education were sometimes pushed to the side for the sake of more technocratic notions of the purpose of schooling, notions more in line with the economic logic of our meritocracy but less in line with the civic ideals underlying our republic.
If we are really to look beyond the framework of the achievement-scores agenda, and if we want to consider what conservatives can bring to the table now that has for too long been forgotten, we would need to look not just to the conservative wing of the technocratic reform coalition, but to the core of conservative thought itself, and the essential role it ascribes to culture, to moral formation, and therefore to education more fully understood.
To see what this might mean, we should ask a couple of questions that seem almost as foreign to this moment in our politics as the idea of earnest policy innovation. They are questions that could hardly be more important to the right in the age of Trump, but that don’t come naturally: What really is conservatism? And what does it have to offer?
There are, of course, a near infinity of ways we might go about answering these questions, and distinguishing the left from the right. But there is one particular approach that can help highlight the implications of these differences for education. The left and right both have something to teach. Each wants to make sure our society doesn’t take something for granted, and so each tries to remind the rising generation of something it might otherwise neglect. But each has something distinct in mind.
The left wants to be sure we do not take injustices in our society for granted—that we see the ways in which the strong oppress the weak, that we take them seriously, that we never walk by them and pretend they don’t exist. A huge amount of progressivism’s cultural and intellectual energies is directed to this fundamentally educational cause.
The right, on the other hand, wants to be sure we do not take social order for granted—that we see the ways in which our civilization protects us, enriches us, and elevates us, that we never imagine that this is all easy or natural, and never forget that, if we fail to sustain this achievement, we will all suffer for it. A huge amount of conservatism’s cultural and intellectual energies is directed to this fundamentally educational cause.
These two different sets of concerns suggest that left and right begin from different assumptions about the human person and society—different anthropologies and sociologies. Briefly (and, so, no doubt crudely) summarizing these could help us think more clearly about the role of education.
American conservatism has always consisted of a variety of schools of social, political, and economic thought. But they are nearly all united, in a general sense, by a cluster of anthropological assumptions that sets them apart from most American progressives and liberals. Conservatives tend to see the human person as a fallen and imperfect being, prone to excess and to sin, and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation.1 This fundamentally gloomy conception of humanity sets conservatives apart from libertarians and progressives alike, and sits at the core of most conservative thinking about society and politics.
It leads, to begin with, to low expectations of human affairs and away from utopianism. Conservatives expect the most profound and basic human problems to recur in every generation because they are intrinsic to the human condition—a function of our permanent limitations that must be acknowledged, counterbalanced, mitigated, or accommodated but that can never really go away.
The fact that these limits are inherent in humanity also leaves most conservatives persuaded that the experiences of different generations will not be fundamentally different—or, as some have put it, that human nature has no history. This leaves conservatives not only resistant to the lure of utopias, but also far more concerned about the prospect of social and cultural degradation than they are confident about the prospects for enduring progress.
Regardless of how much intellectual and material progress a society may make, every new child entering that society will still join it with essentially the same native intellectual and biological equipment as any other child born in any other society at any other time in the history of the human race. Raising such children to the level of their societies is a prerequisite for any form of progress. But a failure to initiate the next generation of children into the ways of our civilization would not only delay or derail innovation, it would put into question the very continuity of that civilization. This is a crucial reason why conservatives care so deeply about culture.
And this same assumption, rooted in low expectations, also often leaves conservatives impressed by, and protective of, enduring, successful social institutions. The fallen character of man means that, left to itself, the default condition of the human race is more likely to be miserable than happy, and that failure in society is more likely than success. Conservatives are therefore often far more thankful for success in society than we are outraged by failure. Progressives tend to feel differently because their expectations are much higher: They assume social order is the easy part—and that any deviation from equality and justice is therefore an intentional result of acts of malice by those who are strong in our society and who choose to use their power to oppress the weak.
This difference of expectations is at the center of a lot of our most divisive political debates. It shapes how conservatives and progressives understand the nature and sources of the problems that American society confronts. If you assume that dangerous chaos is our default condition while social order is a hard-earned achievement, you will tend to see society’s problems as resulting from a failure to form fallen people into civilized men and women. You will assume, as has been well said, that “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” and will see politics as a struggle to sustain institutions that might make us capable of some balance of freedom and order in a hard world. If you assume that equality and order are the human default, however, then you will see social iniquities and dysfunctions as resulting from intentional misbehavior by people in power. You will assume, as has also been well said, that “man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” and will look at politics as a struggle to liberate individuals from structures of oppression.
As the economist Arnold Kling has noted in his important book The Three Languages of Politics, this means conservatives tend to view political controversies as involving a tension between civilization and barbarism, while progressives view such controversies as involving a tension between oppressor and oppressed. Think about how people on the right and the left talk about immigration, for instance, or urban policing, or almost any of the most intensely debated cultural and political controversies we face, and you’ll get a sense of what Kling’s framework can show us.
The implications of all this for education are enormous, of course. It means that conservatives place heavy emphasis on sustaining the institutions necessary for moral formation and social peace, while progressives tend to emphasize liberating individuals from the oppressive burdens of a social order steeped in injustice. As a result, progressive education wants to liberate the student to be himself or herself, while conservative education wants to form the student to be better suited to the responsibilities of citizenship.
This points not so much toward different curricular choices in character and civic education as toward a far greater emphasis on both of those disciplines on the right and an inclination to discount or avoid them on the left—or to replace them with an ideal of education as liberation from injustice.
An emphasis on the quantifiable in education, which has been the organizing principle of the reform coalition for more than two decades, tends to downplay both of these ways of thinking about curricular content and emphasis. That is not to say, of course, that this has been a period devoid of struggles about curriculum. Nor is it to suggest that character education has been altogether absent from the national debate. An emphasis on character has been important to the success of some of the most prominent choice experiments and charter programs serving disadvantaged students, for example.
But in putting accountability, achievement gaps, and international competitiveness at the forefront, the reform coalition has deemphasized the formation of students as human beings and citizens. This has succeeded, in part, in shielding the politics of primary and secondary education from the very worst ravages of our increasingly intense culture war—at least until recently. But it has also kept out of bounds some essential tools and ideas that could play important roles in strengthening American education, including in closing achievement gaps and helping students learn the basics.
Any idea of education that is not connected to an idea of formation—of habituation in virtue, inculcation in tradition, veneration of the high and noble—is unavoidably impoverished. And in the wake of the collapse of the education reform coalition, conservatives are well positioned to help it become less impoverished.
That doesn’t mean that all conservatives could agree on a precise curriculum in these areas, or that they need to use state power to impose it. But it does mean that it is now incumbent on us to make education-policy debates less technocratic, and thus more suited to the particular kinds of challenges that America confronts today.
The last few years of our politics have shown us that our country is living through a serious social crisis. Many Americans are alienated from our core institutions and distrustful of them, and we seem to have less and less recourse to any foundation of mutual commitments. At the same time, an epidemic of isolation and estrangement is breaking down the lives of millions, leaving them disconnected from sources of belonging and meaning. And we are witnessing the loss of a common civic vocabulary, which is leaving us less capable of defining our Americanness in positive, rather than just negative, terms. These are obviously connected problems, and they relate as well to the tendency of all of our major institutions to shirk the task of moral formation in favor of moralistic performance and virtue signaling.
It should be obvious that there is a crucial role for schools in addressing these problems, even if it is not obvious exactly what it would mean to play that role effectively and responsibly. The question should be how, not whether, to place a greater emphasis on character and on civics in American education.
This is so partly because education is inherently formative, so that to keep character and civics out of the equation is implicitly to tell students that they do not matter. If we organize our schools around the premise that math and reading scores are what education is about, we effectively tell our children that math and reading are the essence of what the civilization they are inheriting has to offer them. And we can’t really believe that’s true.
But there is another, less obvious reason why a formative idea of education would have to be at the center of a broader social renewal. Key to the reason why our mediating institutions—institutions of family, community, religion, and civic life—have lost some of their ability to bring us together and shape our character for flourishing is that they have lost some of their practical purposes in our lives.
The logic of the welfare state and the logic of the market economy (which are far from the enemies or opposites they are sometimes thought to be) have both expanded their reach in the past half century so that, between them, they now penetrate into every crevice of our common life. For good and for ill, this has meant that many Americans are less dependent on sources of help (in the family and community) that might demand something of us in return, or might offer us a place and a connection. And it has meant that local civic and charitable groups, religious institutions, and fraternal organizations simply have less to do, and therefore fewer ways to attract people out of isolation and into community. The character of modern markets and the character of modern governments have both enervated our traditional mediating institutions.
Yet these kinds of institutions and the connections they offer are still essential to our building relationships and attachments. They are vital to our psychic and social well-being. But we cannot expect them to remain strong if that is all they do for us. As Robert Nisbet put it more than half a century ago:
Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. Yet despite the loss of these manifest institutional functions, we continue to expect them to perform adequately the implicit psychological or symbolic functions in the life of the individual.2
This tendency has only grown more acute since then, so that one crucial way to understand the social crisis many Americans confront is that the institutions that have provided us with moral formation and social connection as their secondary purposes have been robbed of their primary purposes, and so are struggling to function.
But schools are an exception to this pattern. They remain essentially local institutions, and we still need them to perform an absolutely necessary function—educating the young. That means they can still successfully play a further formative function, and to a degree that few other mediating institutions can. We must therefore demand that they take that formative role seriously, and so we must put it at the center of how we think about education.
Needless to say, all of this adds up to a controversial understanding of the purpose of primary and secondary education, and one that will tend to fan the flames of our culture wars. Whether we like it or not, the next phase of conservative education-policy thinking will need to be willing to do that—not to the exclusion of emphases on core math and reading competencies, on school choice, and on accountability, but alongside them.
Over the last few decades, our approach to education became highly technocratic for reasons both substantive and political. But in the coming years, conservatives will need to find appealing, responsible ways to return to our roots and remind ourselves and the country of just what children need from schooling, and what an ideal of education more thoroughly rooted in an ideal of human flourishing could have to offer.
Character formation, civics, and the inculcation of the best of our traditions are inseparable from any meaningful idea of education. Conservatives will now have to press that case—and to help our fellow citizens see its promise.
1. Russell Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles,” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, accessed October 17, 2019, https://kirkcenter.org/conservatism/ten-conservative-principles/.
2. Robert Nisbet, “The Problem of Community,” in Communitarianism: A New Public Ethics, Markate Daly, ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1993), 143–144.
“When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” —Oscar Wilde
I’m getting a little nervous about our blossoming love affair with the “science of reading.” This may seem odd since I’ve been banging on about reading for over a decade, variously lampooning or shaking my fist at the dumb and the deleterious ways we teach it, and ranting about how poorly we prepare teachers to improve reading achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students.
I’m truly grateful for the remarkable (if overdue) groundswell of interest in how children learn to read, what it means to be a proficient reader, and how to ensure that teachers are prepared to teach reading effectively. But I’m also keenly aware of the fad-driven nature of education practice and policy. The pattern is familiar: We’re quick to grab hold of shiny new ideas (usually just smartly repackaged old ones) and abandon them just as quickly when they don’t offer the quick fix that advocates always seem to promise.
The potential for the science of reading (SOR) to get sucked into this vortex of overpromise-and-underdeliver is significant and worth thinking through before it happens. As Mark Seidenberg of the University of Wisconsin–Madison describes it, the science of reading is “a body of basic research in developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience on reading” stretching back decades. We’ve learned quite a lot about what happens “under the hood” when we read, with “important implications for helping children to succeed,” Seidenberg writes. “But it has not been incorporated in how teachers are trained for the job or how children are taught.” That’s not surprising. The complexity can be overwhelming—and daunting to apply it to classroom practice. Which leads to efforts to distill, to simplify, to codify. The inevitable bumper-stickering is well underway, reducing SOR, for example, merely to “phonics.”
On the bright side, the 2020 Teacher Prep Review from the National Council on Teacher Quality found significant progress on reading instruction. The number of U.S. teacher- prep programs to embrace reading science has crossed the halfway mark. Fifty-one percent of 1,000 elementary teacher preparation programs across the country earned an A or B for their coverage of “key components” of the science of reading, up from just 35 percent seven years ago. That’s encouraging.
But it elides an important question: Just how expert do teachers need to be in reading science in order to be effective reading teachers? I suspect it’s enough to have a working knowledge of the components of reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and fluency), a well-designed instructional program, and to be a competent diagnostician—savvy enough to recognize reading failures early and prescribe an effective intervention or referral. Expecting tens of thousands of elementary school teachers to develop deep expertise in the science of reading to improve instruction isn’t a winning strategy. It’s an invitation for already overwhelmed teachers to continue to default to their comfort zone: balanced literacy and cheerleading for “lifelong love of reading.”
The complexities of reading instruction put state policymakers in a bit of a bind. It’s not hard to make districts, schools, and teachers do something; it’s very hard to make them do it well. Doing something complicated, doing it well, and on a mass basis is unheard of.
It will take a judicious combination of leaning on ed schools to raise their game, incentivizing quality curriculum adoptions, targeted teacher professional development—and a lot of patience and political will—to keep the science of reading train on the tracks, and to improve outcomes for kids.
At a recent Literacy Summit hosted by Council of Chief State School Officers, David Steiner, Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, compared the state of reading instruction in the U.S. to “chemistry departments teaching alchemy.” A former ed school dean who served as New York’s State’s education commissioner, he observed that state education departments exhibit “a curious fear of universities.” This is strange, he said, because states “have multiple tools at their disposal they’re simply not using.”
“Accreditation is a real tool. A school of education, an alternative certification program cannot operate if the state says it can’t operate,” Steiner observed. “Certification is a real tool. Teachers cannot teach if the state says they’re not certified to do so.” Steiner encouraged state superintendents to hold schools of education to account for the impact their graduates have in the classroom.
Establishing “competencies” in the science of reading is a “tiny first step,” Steiner cautioned. “All that happens is that it appears in a paragraph in a description of a curriculum, which then gets checked by somebody deep inside a state department of education.” I agree, but I’d advance Steiner’s argument even further: The vast majority of teachers who work in a given state were trained and certified in that state. States are also heavily (and appropriately) involved in decisions involving curricula, teaching methods, and instructional materials in their public schools. This adds up to a permission slip—even a duty—for states to make a few judicious bets about curricula and instruction to align efforts around reading instruction.
Louisiana offers a good model that honors local control while incentivizing the adoption of high-quality curricula. Several years ago, the state launched a system of evaluating English language arts and math curricula into tiers, and putting various sweeteners in place to induce districts to adopt the highest-rated ones, while aligning professional development and assessments to what gets taught. The next step might be requiring ed schools to certify candidate on a “tier one” curriculum. States would be within their rights to make it a condition of accreditation or certification.
It works just as well in the opposite direction: In the absence of state mandates, an enterprising ed school dean might partner with local school districts and charter management organizations to graduate candidates trained in the specific reading curricula they have adopted, enhancing teacher preparedness and making their graduates more attractive hires. Over time this would create a market for scientifically-sound curricula—and for teachers well-versed in their implementation. The critical point is that, under either scenario, the effort is aimed at ensuring teachers are qualified to teach a curriculum, not merely “exposed” to the science of reading in teacher prep or professional development. To make SOR more than a box-checking exercise and the next failed educational fad, it has to be operationalized for teachers and become a focal point of teacher training and ongoing professional development—and reinforced and rewarded at testing time.
Ed schools and “alt cert” programs might resist being pushed in a direction they might perceive as vocational training, but it’s a fight worth having. At the same CCSSO gathering, Nebraska education commissioner Matthew Blomstedt described a meeting early in his tenure where he was told that colleges and universities were “very powerful” because they controlled teacher certification in his state. “The only reason you prepare teachers in Nebraska,” Blomstedt reminded them, “is because I say you can.”
Education’s sudden interest in the science of reading is a great thing, and long overdue. The best way for it to go sideways is to put the lift entirely on teachers, whose jobs are already extraordinarily challenging, to master the arcana of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and to expect them to apply it in the classroom. This doesn’t mean transforming the average kindergarten teacher into a cognitive scientist as a condition of certification. The key is operationalizing the science of reading for overworked teachers. That means states using their legitimate authority to ensure quality literacy curricula and materials get in front of children, and making sure teachers are well-trained in implementing them. States can and should use their authority over teacher preparation to ensure that the schools and programs prepare teachers to be competent and successful, and to incentivize the adoption and use of knowledge and language-rich curricula within and between grades, particularly in the elementary and middle school years.
The alternative is seeing the sudden and intense interest in the science of reading become the Next Big Thing. Then the Next Big Nothing.
States are in the driver’s seat. Drive carefully.
Everywhere you look, the science of reading is the toast of the town. Yes, the “reading wars” have a long and tortured history, but the publication of Emily Hanford’s groundbreaking 2018 radio documentary helped set in motion a sort of reading renaissance, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Reading First twenty years ago and Jeanne Chall’s work thirty years before that. Now a critical mass of policymakers and other stakeholders have thrown in their lot with evidence-based reading instruction. I’ve done my fair share of glass-raising too: A piece I wrote last fall in these pages was Fordham’s top read blog post for 2019.
So with the iron this hot, where do we go from here? Barring a drastic change, this newfound interest in reading science has all the makings for a slow and steady fade out twenty months from now if not sooner.
Twenty months. Less than two years.
When I explain this to people I feel like Bill Paxton in Aliens raining on the parade by telling everyone how the heightened interest in reading instruction will be stopped by the education establishment. I mean the aliens. The problem is that if I’m the Bill Paxton character, I don’t know who out there is playing Ripley, the chief protagonist who knows how to survive to help take down the guardians of balanced literacy. I mean the aliens. Sorry. It happened again.
All of which is to say that, while the science of reading has caught a sizable wave in American K–12 education, I lived through similarly killer surfing ten years ago when the edu-verse coalesced around teacher evaluation. Granted, reading instruction shouldn’t be as politically complicated as evaluating teachers. After all, the AFT is on the right side of the reading science (though it’s easy to forget they were initially supportive of overhauling teacher evaluation too), and embracing the research wouldn’t require a significant financial outlay. Still, there are enough parallels with today’s fuss over early literacy that I want to share what I learned from riding the craze for better teacher evaluation once upon a time.
Lesson one: It starts with a seminal article or report
In the summer of 2009, TNTP released a report titled The Widget Effect, which rocked the education reform world. I was working for then Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett who, along with then-Governor Mitch Daniels, seized upon the findings (that teachers were treated as interchangeable parts as evidenced by nearly all teachers being rated good or great) to join over thirty other states to require more stringent reviews of teacher performance. This was 2011, almost two years after the release of TNTP’s report. The day I watched Governor Daniels sign our teacher bill into law was the equivalent of this month in 2020 time.
What we didn’t realize then was that what we thought were self-evidently desirable policies (e.g., tying teacher performance and compensation to student outcomes) were doomed to fail, not because of the better evaluation rubrics and processes that resulted, but in spite of them.
Lesson two: Politics is at the root of the problem
Andy Rotherham recently authored a brilliant piece examining our tendency to conflate problems of education craft with problems of education politics. Back in 2011, we thought our approach to teacher evaluation—unlike other states on the bandwagon—was wiser because we left much of the evaluation mechanics to local judgment and discretion. As an example, Indiana’s teacher effectiveness law didn’t assign a percentage to how much student test scores would be accounted for. We thought, in hindsight naïvely, that districts would use the flexibility to set a high bar. Instead, most ended up making tests only 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation—and even that pittance was apparently too much for the forces of resistance and repeal to bear. State lawmakers are currently in the process of decoupling tests scores from teacher evaluations altogether.
In the case of reading, balanced literacy supporters aren’t ignorant of the research; they simply don’t care. Like someone who holds to their religious beliefs with clear-eyed devotion and certainty, so do the reading science deniers. The fight then isn’t about improving reading instruction as much as it is about ideology and politics. Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to those who understand the fundamentally political nature of schools and education.
Lesson three: Passing laws is the easy part
Shepherding Indiana’s teacher effectiveness bill into law required an intense amount of handholding. In addition to lining up experts and other stakeholders to testify during lengthy committee hearings, there was additional groundwork involving over a year’s worth of runway. Necessarily, our energy was focused on passing a law, not operationalizing it. Besides which, policymakers and advocates are incentivized to celebrate legislative wins rather than the slow and messy work that comes afterwards.
Over a dozen states and counting have recently passed laws designed to ensure teachers are well-versed in the science of reading, but it’s doubtful whether a commensurate amount of attention has been given to high-quality curriculum adoption and training. States newly besotted with the reading science that ignore this essential follow up do so at their own peril.
Lesson four: The federal government can turbocharge or torpedo your effort
At first, President Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan were helpful in supporting our push for robust teacher evaluations. But as their enthusiasm for reform began to wane, it coincided with a collective easing off of the gas pedal nationally. Today it’s unclear how a second term under the current administration or a new one under a President Biden or Sanders would advance the cause for more reading science. All three men have at best tenuous ties to reading. In the case of the former, we have a commander in chief who doesn’t read; Biden shocked many with his comments that black parents “can’t read or write”; and Sanders seems more interested in Cuba’s literacy program than in ours (never mind that the program itself was used as a tool for authoritarianism).
Lesson five: Earning public support is really, really hard
While polls generally show support for education reforms, translating that support into broader change is a whole other matter. To wit, charter schools are on the verge of being politically abandoned in no small part because only 6 percent of public school students attend them. For the parents of nine out of ten public school students, the policy is primarily a theoretical one. Similarly, the lack of a natural constituency for teacher evaluation has caused many states to make a hasty retreat on the erstwhile popular issue.
When it comes to reading, 40 percent of students will learn to read no matter how they are taught. To put a finer point on this, literacy guru Timothy Shanahan says, “Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.” So for the remaining six out of ten public school parents, a subset will not be aware of—let alone demand—whether their children are taught using an evidence-based approach. The upshot is that most parents have no “skin in the game” vis-à-vis the science of reading.
By the time the next round of NAEP results come out at the tail end of 2021, it’s likely that today’s dream about a widespread adoption of the reading science will be a distant memory. As part of the current push to “trust” teachers and eliminate all external measures of validity, balanced literacy adherents will continue to ante up on classroom experience over brain scans or research experiments. History might not repeat itself, but it does dependably rhyme.
Depending on whom you ask, teacher evaluation is a vital part of helping educators grow and improve, good for some situations but not for others, or a punitive exercise which serves to demean the profession. Whatever one’s bent, in-person observations are a large part of the teacher evaluation landscape, and they come with significant time costs for both observers and teachers. Administrators can take between ten to thirty hours to evaluate each educator, including observing, writing up, and discussing feedback. A recent study conducted by Tom Kane, David Blazar, and colleagues asks if there’s a better way. They examine the impact of substituting videotaped lessons for in-person principal observations for purposes of evaluating teachers.
Kane and his team conducted a randomized field trial in four sites in Delaware, Georgia, Colorado, and California, involving 433 teachers and 134 administrators. Schools were randomly assigned to the control group, which had traditional in-person observations (typically two or three per teacher per year) or the treatment group of video observations, which allowed teachers to record themselves (approximately twice per month) and to submit three videos of their choosing for evaluation. Observers would then time-stamp the video with comments and discuss with the teacher afterwards using the same rubric for all teachers in both evaluation types. Fifty-two schools were randomly assigned to treatment, and fifty-five to control. Researchers also collected a variety of achievement and survey data from teachers and students.
Relative to the control group, the study found no difference in terms of the amount of time devoted to teacher observations as reported by administrators. Both groups reported spending about forty-one minutes per week addressing various aspects of the observation process for a randomly selected teacher. However, though it did not save time in the aggregate, administrators in the treatment group shifted their observation work to times of the day or week when classes were not being held, such as before and after school, during lunch, in the evenings, and on weekends or holidays. In fact, the timestamps on the video comments showed that about two-thirds of evaluation work occurred during non-instructional hours.
Treatment teachers reported perceiving the observation process to be less adversarial and more fair and supportive than did teachers in the control group. They were also more likely than control group teachers to identify a specific change in their practice and to be more critical of their teaching. Treatment principals were also were more likely to report that teachers were rarely defensive during the post-observation meeting; however, they were also 20 percentage points less likely than their control group peers to report that teachers had a better understanding of student learning and classroom challenges in their school as result of the classroom observation process.
In terms of retention, the video intervention had significant positive impacts on whether teachers remained in their same grade, school, and district the following year. But when it came to student responses, researchers found no difference between the groups in terms of how students viewed their classroom experiences—engagement, classroom management, and so on. And arguably the most important finding: Video evaluations had no impact on student achievement.
The mixed bag of findings—a win for amity and convenience, a wash for self-reflection and student achievement—defies easy explanation. Kane and his team suggest that having teachers select videos could conceal particular instructional weaknesses, making the process less informative than a drop-in, in-person observation. (In fact, principals in the treatment group reported their own reservations about ditching the in-person evaluation.) It could be that videos would work better as a coaching tool, with video feedback including specific instructional suggestions that teachers practice and then resubmit to their supervisors. That way, the video becomes an invitation to submit your worst lesson, not your best. Learning from one’s mistakes is not only a lesson that teachers should preach to students, but should also practice themselves.
SOURCE: Thomas J. Kane et al., “Can Video Technology Improve Teacher Evaluations? An Experimental Study,” Education Finance and Policy (April 2019).
Effective communication is a two-way street that involves not only sending and receiving information, but also understanding it. Breakdowns can occur at any point. A new report from the Center for American Progress digs into the state of school-to-family communication, looking for strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities in this important endeavor.
Researchers Meg Benner and Abby Quirk build on previous studies which indicate that clear and consistent communication channels are an important way for schools to encourage family engagement. But the mere existence of a channel (weekly emails, monthly phone calls, regular conferences, etc.) is not enough. Evenby parents is not sufficient to ensure the desired engagement. Are schools sending the sorts of information parents want? Can parents understand what they receive? Does the information convey the tone which schools intend? Does it lead parents to take action? Is technology a help or a hindrance? The potential for miscommunication is high.
In fall 2019, Benner and Quirk recruited survey participants via a crowdsourcing data acquisition platform called CloudResearch. They set racial and ethnic targets for parent participants using the 2015 public school enrollment estimates—per the Common Core of Data files from the—for Asian/Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, and white parents so as to obtain a nationally representative sample. The teachers and school leaders who participated in the survey, having no targets set during recruitment, were overwhelmingly white. In the end, they recruited 1,759 total participants in three categories: 932 parents, 419 teachers, and 408 school leaders. The vast majority of all respondents were associated with traditional district schools, although both charter schools and magnet schools were represented.
Overall, parents, teachers, and school leaders reported that schools’ communication of various information types is useful, and that parent engagement is strong. However, there were several notable discrepancies. For instance, 92 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they were “involved with their children’s learning,” while only 64 percent of teachers and 84 percent of school leaders agreed that parents were involved. School leaders were most likely to agree with the statement that parents were “involved with the school community”—85 percent of them agreed or strongly agreed—compared with 72 percent of parents and 69 percent of teachers.
Parents, teachers, and school leaders all rated individual student achievement (a catchall category without reference to specifics such as test scores or grades) as the most important type of information to communicate. Beyond that, though, important differences of opinion emerged. Parents rated curriculum information and resources related to college and career readiness as the next two types of information they desired, while teachers instead rated patterns of behavior and disciplinary action as their second and third choices, respectively. School leaders favored schoolwide achievement information as number two, followed by a raft of other things tied for (a distant) third.
While parents, teachers, and school leaders all reported that the school communicated information frequently, all said that ideal communication would be more frequent and more consistent. The ideal reported frequencies of conveying different types of information unfortunately varied widely among the categories of respondents (with parents and teachers wanting varying levels of increased frequency and school leaders wanting to stand pat or decrease frequency). Additionally, school leaders reported that the overall amount of information shared was increasingly too much as they moved from younger to older grades, while parents reported the amount as increasingly too little. An important divergence of opinion.
The report concludes with recommendations for federal, state, and district levels. They include schools surveying parents about their engagement and communication preferences, the feds maintaining Title I Parent Engagement funds, states providing technical assistance to schools to develop parent engagement plans, districts investing in technology advisors who can recommend parent-focused communication improvements, schools connecting information to individual student achievement whenever possible, school leaders reinforcing parent communication as a central responsibility of every teacher, and schools providing training and resources to ensure staff members have the capacity and tools to communicate with all parents.
SOURCE: Meg Benner and Abby Quirk, “,” Center for American Progress (February, 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the Trump administration’s proposal to block-grant the federal Charter Schools Program. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether instructors who teach several sections of the same universe course improve with repetition.
Amber's Research Minute
Harold E. Cuffe, Jan Feld, and Trevor O’Grady, “Returns to Teaching Repetition – The Effect of Short-term Teaching Experience on Student Outcomes,” Education Finance and Policy Journal (February 27, 2020).