Bipartisanship is in tatters, and that’s a big problem for education. Yet it’s also an opportunity for conservatives to recognize that the gains made with bipartisanship’s help meant suppressing some important differences and neglecting some vital elements of schooling. It’s time to lean into those differences, understand what’s been neglected or distorted, address some troubling voids, and see if we can renegotiate terms.
We cannot be sure whether the national education reform movement that roared across America from A Nation at Risk (1983) until recently has halted or simply paused. Reform, however, is definitely at low ebb—and most student scores and other outcome measures remain flatter and at lower levels than the country needs. While reform efforts still inch along in some states and communities, they appear to inch backward almost as often. This deceleration creates a discouraging yet valuable moment for everyone, conservatives included, to contemplate the future of American education while considering past successes and earlier mistakes.
We applaud the successes. Schools today are far more often judged by their results and the gains made by their pupils than by the money spent on them or the programmatic bells and whistles that they offer. Standards and expectations are higher almost everywhere. Achievement has risen a bit, at least in the earlier grades, and especially for the lowest performers. Some learning gaps are narrower, and many opportunities are wider. Career and technical education is enjoying something of a revival. Millions more families have options for their children’s education, as it’s no longer taken for granted that students will attend the district-operated public schools closest to their homes.
As we celebrate these accomplishments, we should also reflect on how they came about. Many of their driving ideas were conservative in origin, although making them happen typically entailed bipartisanship and compromise, as Democrats and Republicans, mostly center-left and center-right, found common ground in pursuit of big changes in a deeply entrenched system that was not successfully serving many of their children or the society in which they live. Among the conservative leaders who championed such reforms, most were governors and legislators, but key roles were also played by presidents from Ronald Reagan through the Bushes 41 and 43, teaming up with equity-minded progressives, and often with business and civil rights groups that found it possible to link arms. The shared goal was to help more young Americans find opportunity and success, thus addressing conservatives’ desire for better outcomes and more choices along with progressives’ desire to make the system fairer and close long-standing learning gaps.
Bipartisanship is in tatters today in many realms of our national life, and that’s a big problem on countless fronts. Yet it’s also an opportunity for conservatives to recognize that the gains made possible through bipartisanship also meant suppressing some important differences and neglecting some vital elements of schooling in particular and education in general. It’s time to lean into those differences, understand what’s been neglected, lost, or distorted, address some troubling education voids, and see if we can renegotiate terms before the next wave of reform.
That’s the purpose of a brand-new book, published by the Templeton Press, edited by us and supported by the Kern Family Foundation: How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools. In it, almost two-dozen right-leaning public intellectuals and scholars responded to our request to help us “address the big questions about where America finds itself at this moment in history, where we’re going (or should go), and the role of primary-secondary education in taking us there.” Among the many names that you will recognize are three former Secretaries of Education (Lamar Alexander, Bill Bennett, Rod Paige); the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin, Jonah Goldberg, Nicholas Eberstadt, Naomi Schaefer Riley and (until recently) Arthur Brooks; and the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz and Heather Mac Donald as well as the Hoover Institution’s William Damon.
Conservatives have important truths to speak that often aren’t heard (or heeded) in discussions of public education—sometimes because conservatives have circumscribed their own truth-seeking behind a wall labeled “school choice” and have sometimes withdrawn their own children into schools that suit them without paying sufficient heed to the education of others or the broader needs of the country we all inhabit. Today’s reform hiatus creates a space in which conservatives can refresh their own thinking about schooling’s proper role and the contents of a first-rate education.
For America to have the prosperous, secure, and vibrant future that we all want, and for our children and grandchildren to enjoy their full measure of that future while contributing their very best to it, we need a primary-secondary education system that delivers the goods—and delivers them for everyone.
For conservatives to absent themselves from conversations on how best to bring about that future, and retreat into enclaves and echo chambers of their own while mouthing (or earnestly insisting on) the policy nostrums of the 1990s, is not just irresponsible. It also yields the shaping of that future to those who now term themselves “progressives.” Is there a conservative alive today who actually welcomes that prospect?
So what do the conservatives represented in our book think is needed at this moment in time? As should be expected from this cadre of creative thinkers, they set off in many directions—but as the reader will discover, their separate musings turned out to revolve around several key themes.
The first is the importance of rekindling students’ understanding of American history, civics, and citizenship, including the kind that instills an informed love of country even as it acknowledges past failings and present challenges. (Yes, we and our fellow authors are happy to give apoplexy to the ghost of Howard Zinn.)
A second theme revolves around good character. That includes moral education, properly construed, but also the critical work of helping young people find purpose and feel needed, the benefits of asking students (high achievers and their peers alike) to work hard in their studies and beyond, and the injustice of dubious discipline “reforms” that reinforce a soft bigotry of low expectations around student behavior.
The third big theme urges a broader view of what follows elementary and secondary education. College need not be the only pathway to dignity or the middle class and a key goal of our schools should be to inform teenagers about the “Success Sequence” and encourage them to follow it: finish school, get a full-time job, get married, and start a family—in that order.
There’s much, much more in the volume itself, and we hope that both conservatives and others will engage with the ideas and arguments therein. As Princeton’s Robert George argues in his chapter, “viewpoint diversity” leads to better understanding of the truth, so let’s take the time to understand where different sides of the debate are coming from. It’s what we want our children to do, and we should model it as well.
Editor’s note: What follows is a reprinting of the preface to an important new book, How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Fordham’s Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr., and published by Templeton Press.
I was participating in a humdrum educators’ roundtable in Buffalo, New York, in 1988 when “Monk” Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame, asked this question: “What is the purpose of a public school?”
There was a long silence until finally Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposed this answer: “The public school was created for the purpose of teaching immigrant children reading, writing, and arithmetic and what it means to be an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents.” The reason to read this book is to judge for yourself whether the twenty-two conservative luminaries who wrote its chapters have produced a better answer today to Malloy’s question than Albert Shanker did thirty years ago.
Shanker was a patriot—an old-fashioned, anticommunist, Hubert Humphrey–liberal Democrat union organizer whose parents had immigrated from Poland. So he and this book’s conservative writers agreed on one thing: In coeditor Chester Finn’s words, “Schools should inculcate a solid understanding of and appreciation for why America exists and what it stands for, to transmit history and civics and, yes, a positive attitude toward its strengths as well as a reasoned commitment to addressing its weakness.” Or, in Shanker’s words, “Public schools played a big role in holding our nation together. They brought together children of different races, languages, religions, and cultures and gave them a common language and a sense of common purpose. We have not outgrown our need for this; far from it.”
Today, there is elite disdain for such Americanism. But this is not a popular attitude. Most audiences applaud and some come to their feet when I say, “We should teach more United States history in our schools so our children can grow up knowing what it means to be an American.” There is bipartisan support for this sentiment. After September 11, 2001, George W. Bush and Al Gore both reminded the nation that principles create the American character—not considerations of race, religion, or national origin. In my first address to the US Senate, I introduced a bill to create summer academies for outstanding students and teachers of US history. Within a day, Senator Ted Kennedy had rounded up nearly twenty Democratic cosponsors without my asking. Especially in today’s internet democracy, an era Peggy Noonan calls “The Great Estrangement,” Americans are hungry for institutions that unite. I suspect that most would agree that it would be a good idea to begin each school day with a student leading the Pledge of Allegiance and then giving his or her version of what it means to be an American.
According to education historian Patricia Graham, “Schools in America have danced to different drummers through their long history”—and schools have a very long history. Hunter-gatherer “play schools” helped children learn to survive. Sumerian schools taught scribes to help a culture survive. During the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, schools taught youngsters to work and got them out from under their parents’ feet. Sociologist James Coleman said that in early America, schools helped parents do what parents could not do as well. That was especially true for teaching literacy. Graham says, “Now the drumbeat demands that all children achieve academically at a high level and the measure of that achievement is tests.”
This book’s conservative writers would temper that drumbeat with a second great conservative goal—in the coeditors’ words, “to restore character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table where they belong.” This is no new thought. Plato said schools should create good men who act nobly. Thomas Jefferson believed that a democracy granting broad liberties needed institutions instilling moral restraint. But Yuval Levin’s essay suggests why character education does not rise so easily on a liberal list of priorities: progressive education wants to liberate the student to be himself or herself, Levin writes, while conservative education wants to form the student to be better suited to the responsibilities of citizenship.
After embracing citizenship and character, the book’s authors diverge in their emphases. Several show a healthy respect for school choice but also for its limits. There is a shout-out for career and technical education. To me, Bill Bennett’s chapter is the most persuasive. He argues that content must be at the center of any conservative consensus on education. He reminds us that in the 1980s and 1990s, conservatives were leading a content crusade with E. D. Hirsch and Governors John Engler, Tommy Thompson, and Jeb Bush as well as Bennett himself as chief architects. This movement was called (shall we whisper it?) “Common Core.” This state-by-state reformation of school standards and curricula was well underway when the Obama administration tried to push it faster by making Common Core a quasi-federal mandate. Republicans imagined black helicopters flying. What conservatives had invented, many Republican legislators had voted into state law, and hundreds of thousands of classroom teachers in forty-five states expected they’d be teaching was suddenly condemned and abandoned...by conservatives.
This abandonment was less complete than it would appear. Last year, our daughter’s family lived with us in Tennessee while her home was being remodeled. She placed two sons in a nearby mountain elementary school. When the boys returned home to their Westchester County, New York, public school, I asked, “Did they have trouble adjusting?” “Nope,” she said. “Common Core here. Common Core there.” Many states simply renamed Common Core to avoid political flak and charged ahead. One advocate told me, “We won. But we’re not allowed to say so.”
The backlash to Common Core brings me to the most obvious mission missing from this volume’s conservative agenda: local control of schools. America was created community by community. The initiative for American public schools was entirely at the local level, Marc Tucker has written. He termed this an “accident of localism.”
I have spent much of my public life trying to preserve this localism. To begin with, federalism—the dispersal of central authority—is a crucial tenet of American liberty. Our revolution, after all, was mostly about distaste for a king. As a practical matter, my experience is that those governing education from a distance have good intentions but limited capacity and that schools can be only as good as parents, teachers, and citizens in a community want them to be. The saga of Common Core is the greatest proof of this pudding. Here was a conservative crusade—new rigor in what students needed to know—blown up by conservatives’ fear that Washington, D.C., was forcing them to do it. The Common Core federal directive was piled on top of other dictates from Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama on how to define standards, teaching, tests, curricula, and remedies for low-performing schools. Almost everyone in public schools became sick of Washington telling them what to do. So, in 2015, teacher unions and governors united to help Congress enact the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which the Wall Street Journal said was “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century.”
Now, after the rise and fall of a national school board, our one hundred thousand public schools have about the same balance between federal leadership and state and local autonomy that existed during the George H. W. Bush administration. Once again, we have it about right. Thirty years ago, President Bush and the governors set the nation’s first national education goals and then launched an “America 2000” initiative to help states meet those goals by creating voluntary standards, voluntary tests, and start-from-scratch schools. This was done the hard way, state by state and community by community—not by federal mandates. Today’s environment is ripe for a revival of a content-based conservative consensus, or in Bill Bennett’s words “a great relearning,” as the best way for our public schools to help our country get where we want it to go. But this time, let’s avoid the lure of federal mandates and do the job the American Way: state by state, community by community.
Far be it from me to claim prescience, but perhaps more folks should have paid attention last year when Rick Hess and I raised a caution about the intensifying ardor among educators for schools to embrace “social-emotional learning” (SEL):
SEL will be counted a dismal failure if it encourages educators to settle for pillowy paeans to “happiness,” “self-esteem,” and “inclusivity” at the expense of harder things such as character, ethics, virtue, and civility. If SEL does tip toward the lax and banal, history suggests that it will likely have a relatively short shelf life, much like the self-esteem fad of the 1980s. There turned out to be no solid research foundation under the work of California’s celebrated Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. To the contrary, its “findings” were ultimately exposed as fraudulent. Long before that, its recommendations were widely mocked for their feel-good soft-headedness. (We suspect this sorry excursion also played a role in the Golden State’s long-term slide in academic performance.) Much the same thing sank the nationwide passion for “values clarification” education in the 1960s and “outcomes-based education” in the 1990s. These movements faltered due to a lack of evidence that they worked and became politically untenable once they came to be seen as inimical to “traditional” values and basic skills. [emphasis added]
What we’re beginning to see today may not be “pillowy paeans” on the part of SEL cadres but practices and emphases that raise concerns in some quarters that what’s going on under SEL’s broad umbrella may be inimical to traditional values and religious faith.
Several recent instances may be fleeting exceptions—but they may also be the squeaks of choking canaries in coal mines where toxic fumes are leaking.
- When the Idaho Education Department presented Gem State legislators with a (modest) budget request to support professional development in SEL for educators, some legislators walked out in disgust. One analogized the proposal to “the collective behavioral approach that was depicted in Brave New World.” Another, reported Education Week, found it “’troubling’ that schools would try to measure students’ social and emotional skills at all.” (At this writing, the budget request remains in play.)
- When Alexandria, Virginia, middle school teachers initiated meditation in classrooms as part of a push for greater “mindfulness” among students, just two sixth graders opted out of the voluntary practice—one that has some research support as a stress reducer, though it’s not yet clear that it advances learning. Still, flags were raised that this practice, commonly associated with Eastern religions, might undermine the faith of children from traditional Christian families.
- When the Highline, Washington, public schools moved to slash the use of out-of-school suspensions by instituting “restorative justice” and other “re-engagement” practices, classroom violence and teacher turnover both rose. We read in The Hechinger Report that “Kimmie Marton, a special education teacher at Mount Rainier High School, said students became more disrespectful after the threat of out-of-school suspensions diminished. ‘Kids will cuss you out, there’s stealing and disobedience,’ she said.”
Many efforts are underway by advocates to encourage states and districts to embrace policies and practices that incorporate SEL, and the wiser of these leave much to local judgment and educator discretion. But decentralization can backfire, too, if those making decisions for their classroom, school or district aren’t well attuned to parental and community sentiment or fail to think through the potential unintended consequences of their initiatives. As the Idaho example shows, however, as did a Tennessee episode a few years ago, statewide policies can also be risky.
Worth noting, too, are some efforts—albeit dwarfed by those of the advocates—to block SEL. The anti-everything Pioneer Institute, for example, has circulated a white paper dubbing it “new-age nanny state” and urging that no public dollars be spent on its promotion. For all we know, there are also Russian bots exploiting this opportunity to sow discord among Americans.
It’s well known that public education is inherently susceptible to controversy when anyone tries to make changes in institutions (and people) that are often stodgy, set in their ways, and risk averse. SEL efforts are bound to raise concerns and hackles, just as new math curricula do—and heaven protect us from changes in the bell schedule, much less the school calendar! So it’s no surprise that some yellow caution lights are blinking. The question is whether those at the wheel will step on the gas and rush through the intersection even as some of those lights turn red, or will tap the brakes, steer carefully, and avoid collisions.
Let me be clear. Children are not just little cognitive learning machines. They’re small flesh-and-blood people who will learn less of what schools should teach them if they’re stressed, lonely, angry, or fearful, just as they’ll learn less if they’re hungry, cold or sick. Schools have an obligation to do what they can to ensure that their classrooms are safe places in which kids feel comfortable, that teachers and other staff members are sensitive to students’ social, emotional and physical wellbeing as well as to their mastery of the three R’s, and that the formation of good citizens with sound character—though that takes far more than schools alone are capable of—is a vital educational mission. I’m all for SEL done right, much as the Aspen commission envisioned it, in support of academic learning. But sniffing and speaking about raisins in second grade, offering yoga as an alternative to detention, and abruptly substituting “restorative justice” for firm discipline in places where teachers are getting assaulted by students—such practices are bound to mystify, alienate, and even infuriate more than a few parents and educators. If it becomes many more than a few, political trouble for SEL lies ahead, as well it should.
Will (SEL) be a passing fad, or something that becomes embodied in school culture? The answer likely hinges on whether it’s embraced by parents and educators, and its ability to improve student outcomes. A new study from the RAND Corporation casts some doubt on whether SEL programs can meet those ambitious goals.
In this , analysts examine the implementation of an SEL program called (TFL) in Jackson Public Schools, a high-poverty Mississippi district of about 25,000 students. TFL aims to develop students’ SEL competencies and improve school climates. It includes eight to twelve classroom lessons per grade that help students recognize and manage their emotions. In addition, TFL asks teachers to use “calm down corners,” hang posters depicting various feelings, and wear lanyards that include problem-solving tools. In Jackson, guidance counselors delivered the TFL lessons every couple weeks in the elementary grades, while social studies teachers did so in middle schools. Consultants and coaches were hired to help support program delivery and provide professional development.
To implement TFL, Jackson randomly chose twenty-three schools to begin using TFL in 2016–17, while twenty-two additional schools waited until the next year. The staggered rollout allowed analysts to evaluate the short-term impacts of the SEL program by comparing pupil outcomes in schools in the first wave—the “treated” schools—versus those that were delayed until the next year. Outcomes include indicators of social-emotional competency (e.g., self-control or empathy), perceptions of school climate (e.g., matters of safety or trust), suspension and attendance rates, and state test scores. The SEL and school climate outcomes were measured via student survey, which the researchers note may suffer from self-reporting biases, while the other data were collected via district records.
The analysis finds no evidence that Jackson’s implementation of TFL improved pupil outcomes. After year one, no significant differences in SEL outcomes or school climate emerge between treated students and their peers. The impacts on attendance, suspensions, and test scores are all likewise insignificant. The point estimates, though not statistically significant, are slightly negative across a large majority of these outcomes. Moreover, analyses indicate that TFL still had no effect on SEL, school climate, or attendance and suspensions after two years of implementation (the district was unable to provide valid data to examine that year’s test scores).
Why the muted impact? While it’s hard to ascertain with certainty, surveys and interviews offer clues about why the program seems to have fallen short of its goals. For one, analysts discover uneven implementation across schools. For instance, among students in treated schools, anywhere from 63 to 100 percent said they’d experienced a TFL lesson. Meanwhile, in-depth fieldwork in several focal schools reveals concerns among educators. Some school staff, for example, thought that the program was too “light touch” and didn’t demand much effort or buy-in, especially from regular classroom teachers. Another worry that surfaced was the “low dosages,” as lessons were taught sporadically over the school year. Last but not least, the study found that “parental engagement was minimal,” limiting opportunities to reinforce at home what students were learning in school.
To sum up their study, the authors write the glum conclusion that the implementation of TFL in Jackson, Mississippi, was “uneven across schools, and in many cases, reportedly shallow.” Of course, it’s not clear whether the lackluster implementation is more a reflection of the TFL program itself, or a lack of capacity on the part of the district. Regardless, this report offers a lesson—and a reality check—about the challenges of SEL implementation.
Source: Gabriella C. Gonzalez, et. al.,, RAND Corporation (2020).
With so many quick-fixes proposed to raise student achievement, it’s hard to tell who school reform is really for. Is it for superintendents trying to appease their school board? Is it for politicians who need to make themselves look re-electable? Or—a radical thought—could it be in support of teachers, those who have the closest contact with the students whom schools are meant to be serving?
A new AEI report by Mike Goldstein examines the barriers to successful reform caused by ill-fitting, top-down policies meant to improve instruction and outcomes, and finds that they often lead to improper implementation, misuse of teachers’ time, and the likelihood that more quick-fix policies will be adopted as the ones before them fail.
When schools make purchases—be it programs, curricula, or materials—on behalf of teachers, they rarely take into account the “large teacher time costs” or “implementation costs” of new reforms, and rarely give them the support or training necessary for success. When these new reforms inevitably fail to produce their intended effects—and without the necessary supports for proper implementation, they always will—schools and politicians turn to the next quick-fix, like smaller class sizes and the hiring of additional specialists. As one educator described it, “[teachers] have tried new ideas so many times in the past, only to be asked to change again.” As so many reforms come and go, teachers become wary of their effectiveness, leading them to become more entrenched in the particular practices they prefer. Yet they usually can’t outright say “no” to new policies, so they resort to what the report calls “half-baked implementation,” incorporating some elements of the reforms into their pedagogy and practice, and rejecting or ignoring other parts.
Goldstein suggests that, instead of wasting so much time and so many resources on things teachers won’t use anyway, leaders should adopt “teacher-controlled funds.” Teachers would receive a sum of money at the beginning of the school year to use at their discretion for a range of purchases, including materials, trainings, or field trips. This, he says, will reduce the likelihood of half-baked implementation because teachers are better positioned to know the specific needs of their classrooms—and more invested in their success. To be sure, however, schools shouldn’t be completely hands-off. They ought to continue providing teacher coaches, curriculum training, and the like to ensure their teachers are making informed decisions instead of, for example, relying on mediocre supplemental materials.
The report contends that teacher-controlled funds would increase teacher retention by making teachers feel more valued and respected. Lack of autonomy is one of the most cited reasons for teacher attrition, so it’s possible that this may be true. It’s also possible that this policy could overburden teachers—especially new teachers—with the responsibility of creating a unique curriculum and supplying it. This may be just as demanding on teachers’ time as trying to learn about new school-wide initiatives. It’s also unclear what effect it may have on standards and accountability, especially if teachers are unable to access decent materials or assess the quality of them. Under this policy, it would be difficult to ensure consistent quality within a single district, let alone in the 13,000+ districts across the country.
“What keeps this stupid system propped up?” the report asks. “The illusion by top-down deciders that this time, this time, they’ll get it right.” But it’s hard to say if any top-down reform will “get it right.” Yes, it’s important to ensure that 13,000+ districts are held to certain standards, but it’s naïve to think that new materials, curriculums, or programs alone can raise student achievement. No policy will work if teachers aren’t prepared and motivated to implement it. Getting teachers to that point may require giving them the deference and autonomy to make their own decisions for their classrooms. Maybe teacher-controlled funds are a good way to do that.
SOURCE: Mike Goldstein, “If Education Procurement is Broken, Is Teacher Choice the Answer?” AEI (February 2020).
On this week’s podcast, William Johnston, associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the positive impacts of New York City’s community schools. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how expanding private school choice in Florida helped public school students.
Amber's Research Minute
David N. Figlio, Cassandra M.D. Hart, and Krzysztof Karbownik, “Effects of Scaling Up Private School Choice Programs on Public School Students,” NBER Working Paper #26758 (February 2020).