Equity need not be pitted against excellence. But let’s not pretend there are no trade-offs. The two are in tension, if not actual conflict, in many matters of policy and practice. We can assume that progressives will always take the “equity” side. So if conservatives don’t make excellence a priority—be it in matters organizational, academic, or related to extracurricular activities and other nonacademic pursuits—nobody will.
As noted by many historians, the modern tale of American education is one of a pendulum swinging between concerns about excellence and those about equity. The Sputnik moment catalyzed worries about eroding excellence, especially in math and science; the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society swung our focus back to equity; A Nation at Risk marked the beginning of the modern “excellence movement”; and No Child Left Behind took us back to equity—or what AEI’s Frederick M. Hess called “achievement gap mania”—once again.
To be sure, we need not pit excellence against equity. As John Gardner asked long ago (and answered in the affirmative), “Can we be equal and excellent too?” After all, there are realms where they overlap, most notably around efforts to address what some have called “the excellence gap.”
Let’s be clear: Conservatives should not oppose the cause of equity. Indeed, much of the energy for what were once considered “conservative” education reforms comes out of the impulse to do right by poor kids. The motive behind high-quality, “no excuses” charter schools; effective, character-forming urban Catholic schools; and rigorous, proven teaching methods was a heartfelt concern about inequality, injustice, and the desire for our country to live up to its founding creed.
But let’s not pretend there are not trade-offs, too. In many matters of policy and practice, excellence and equity are in tension, if not actual conflict. (Consider, for instance, the scarcest resource in our schools: teachers’ time and attention. Should that be allocated equally to every child? Or prioritized for those who are behind? Or those who might rocket ahead?) We can assume that progressives will always take the “equity” side (except perhaps when seeking the best for their own children). So if conservatives don’t make excellence a priority, nobody will.
Excellence in education
What exactly do I mean by “excellence”? Three things: organizational excellence, academic excellence, and excellence in extracurricular activities and other nonacademic pursuits.
Organizational excellence. Organizational excellence is easy to understand but hard to achieve. We conservatives should defend the principle that every American child deserves to attend an excellent school—a school that fields a talented and committed staff; teaches a high-quality curriculum, regardless of its pedagogical approach; engages parents effectively; provides a positive experience for families; and most importantly, achieves great results for its pupils.
Many progressives, especially education reformers, join us in this commitment to organizational excellence but may not be as willing to attack barriers to excellence, such as teachers union contracts that make it difficult to recruit and retain great teachers and bureaucratic structures that make it hard for well-intentioned people to run and sustain excellent schools in a broken system.
Academic excellence. As for academic excellence, several policies and practices belong at the top of our list. First, we conservatives should promote high standards and academic rigor and support schools and teachers who defend them. That means, for instance, pushing back against grade inflation and supporting teachers who refuse to give easy A’s. Second, we should have high expectations for character and behavior and reject “discipline reforms” that are another form of soft bigotry via low expectations. Third, and most importantly, we should support efforts—from kindergarten through college—to nurture our most academically gifted students.
There are ways to build a system of talent identification and development that promotes both excellence and equity and thus can win progressive support as well. Such a system would have at its base a wide range of opportunities for as many young people as possible, including poor kids and kids of color, starting with sizable gifted programs in every elementary school nationwide. “Universal screening” would be essential to find any and all children with academic talent and widen the pipe-line of high achievement as much as possible.
But we shouldn’t shy away from selective-admissions schools like many progressives do. Exam schools at the middle and high school levels, including the famous ones such as Stuyvesant High School in New York or Lowell High School in San Francisco, have proud histories of lifting poor and working-class students to the heights of academic achievement and must be defended. And we should celebrate schools such as Success Academy and many urban Catholic schools that attract highly motivated families and students from high-poverty communities.
We conservatives believe that our country should nurture God-given talent so that youngsters in every generation and from every background can go on to solve difficult problems, start great companies, expand the economic pie, and contribute to human flourishing.
Excellence beyond academics. Finally, we should stand up for excellence beyond academics. For example, we should support excellent technical training programs that teach craftsmanship and attention to detail and launch graduates into good-paying careers. If making such programs selective helps here, too, so be it. Not everyone has the skill or drive to do well in a technical field, and we should reserve scarce slots in great programs for students who do.
Let’s also hail excellence with athletics, music and art programs, and other extracurricular activities. These parts of the U.S. education system arguably work the best and do the most to teach students the social and emotional skills—or what we conservatives more comfortably call “character”—that everyone is now talking about. At a time when football in particular is under attack, conservatives can remind the country that much good comes from Friday night lights.
It is common, in a populist age, to deride excellence as “elitist.” It’s true that excellence is hard and scarce. But it need not be walled off from most people. Our responsibility as conservatives is to stand up for excellence and widen its availability to many more of America’s children.
Conservatives tend to view enhanced and expanded school choice as a singular lever to improve education outcomes. The logic is clear and compelling, even elegant: When schools compete for students, they have every incentive to hire the best teachers, adopt a high-quality curriculum, embrace the highest possible standards, and strive for the best outcomes. If they fall short in any of these or other dimensions, another school down the block will be only too happy to serve that student—and pocket the dollars that generous and optimistic citizens have allocated in hopes of ensuring that every child gets what he or she needs to become a literate, educated, and self-sufficient adult.
This free-market view of schooling, while directionally sound, elides a crucial problem often lost on non-educators: “Innovation,” where it exists, tends to be aimed at delivering education—the process, not the product. The vast weight of the education reform movement, now more than three decades old, has paid little attention to curricular content and pedagogy—what gets taught and how. This may explain why student achievement has changed so little over time as measured by, for example, reading scores among seventeen-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the de facto final exam for America’s K–12 schools.
In the main—and for good reasons—thoughtful conservatives tend to be uneasy crossing the classroom threshold and micromanaging what happens inside. Curriculum battles are both frustrating and fraught. In a recent paper for the Hoover Institution, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett observed how “the lack of conservative consensus on content has very real and very negative consequences.” More ominously, he concluded, “The vacuum cedes the field to the other side, who knows very well what it intends to do.”
Conservatives like Bennett are rightly concerned about the New York Times’s “1619 Project” and its unsparing view of America’s history as structurally and irredeemably racist. Efforts to enshrine those views in history curricula may well inspire folks on the political right to overcome their reluctance to engage on classroom content. But the more critical battle is in early childhood literacy.
The past few years have seen a pair of developments in education that might warrant deeper consideration by potential curriculum advocates on the right: a groundswell of interest in the “science of reading” and a burgeoning awareness and alarm among teachers that they have been sent into classrooms inadequately prepared to teach the subject. At the same time (perhaps driven by the education reform movement’s lack of broad, measurable impact), there has been a renewed interest in curriculum, including efforts to evaluate its quality and incentivize its adoption. As David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, has observed, “What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education; it is American education.”
In 2018, Emily Hanford of American Public Media produced a radio documentary titled “Hard Words.” Education news, let alone deep-dive stories about classroom practice, rarely makes the front page, but Hanford’s piece about how poorly teachers are prepared to teach reading ignited a storm among education practitioners that is still burning hot two years later. It brought into sharp relief the poor preparation classroom teachers receive from their schools of education, which generally are concerned with arcane matters of theory and teaching methods. The nuts and bolts of teacher training—classroom management and lesson delivery—tend to be left to schools and districts to manage.
Separately, a handful of forward-looking states and school districts are starting to get serious about curriculum. Under former State Superintendent John White, for example, Louisiana put curriculum reform at the center of its education agenda while still honoring local control of schools. The state worked with its teachers to evaluate curricula across grades and subject areas, created incentives for adopting the highest-rated programs, and aligned professional development and assessments to it—a virtuous circle that improved the materials put in front of children not by imposing it from above but by incentivizing its adoption.
If there is one area in which conservatives should overcome any lingering aversion to being prescriptive about classroom practice, it is early childhood literacy. Early reading failure is as close to determinative as any outcome in educational research: Nearly 90 percent of struggling first graders are still struggling in fourth grade, three out of four struggling third-grade readers are still struggling in ninth grade, and one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time—a rate four times greater than for proficient readers. Given that the vast majority of teachers in a given state are trained and licensed in that state, it would be appropriate and not governmental overreach for states to adopt—or at the very least incentivize adoption of—one or more early childhood reading curricula and require teachers to be trained in their implementation as a condition of licensure.
The most recent review of teacher preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 51 percent of 1,000 elementary teacher prep programs now emphasize reading science—the first time that number crossed the halfway mark, and up from just 35 percent just seven years ago.9 This is an encouraging development but not sufficient. It’s not unlike flight schools training future pilots to understand Bernoulli’s principle and the physics of flight but leaving it to airlines to train them on how to take off and land a commercial airliner—with passengers strapped in behind them.
At a literacy summit hosted earlier this year by the Council of Chief State School Officers, David Steiner observed that state education departments exhibit “a curious fear of universities.” This is strange, he said, because states “have multiple tools at their disposal,” including accreditation of schools of education and teacher certification. Those fears can be overcome with political support. Or prodding. A state would be within its rights to insist, for example, that early childhood teachers not just be taught the “science of reading” as a condition of licensure, but that they be trained and demonstrate competence teaching a specific curriculum.
Conservatives have generally lost their appetite for curriculum battles, in favor of fights over school choice. But if there is one aspect of schooling that should be common to all schools, public and private, secular and sectarian, it’s ensuring that children from all backgrounds are given a fighting chance to get to the academic starting line by the end of second grade. Common English language arts curriculum in the early years—and a teacher training and licensure strategy to ensure it gets taught—is our best chance of making that happen.
From 1910 to 1940, a grassroots effort in America called the high school movement led to a “spectacular educational transformation” in this country. Enrollment of eighteen-year-olds grew from 19 percent to 71 percent, and graduation rates rose from 9 percent to more than 50 percent—lifting the U.S. to the forefront of educational attainment in the world.
Even still, consumer data today from Gallup and Strada Education Network show that students are disappointed that their educational experiences are not preparing them for good jobs, and employers complain they are unable to fill the jobs they have.
One possible answer to both problems may lie in what seems to be a new high school movement: constructing school and community career pathways partnership models that integrate schools and students with employers and work. This approach creates new forms of social capital for young people by developing relationships that expand their community networks and lifetime access to opportunity and prepare them for life, work, and responsible citizenship.
Relationships are resources that can lead to developing and accumulating human capital and opportunity networks that are key to unlocking social mobility and opportunity. Many schools already foster the development of students’ bonding social capital (creating group networks that not only satisfy the need to be with others like ourselves but also provide personal emotional support, companionship, and validation). What schools do not always succeed at is helping students build bridging social capital (connections with individuals different than ourselves that expand knowledge, social circles, and resources across race, class, and religion). As Xavier de Souza Briggs says, bonding social capital is for “getting by,” and bridging social capital is for “getting ahead” or “import clout.”
Conservatives should support expanding school and community career pathways partnership models to allow students to build the kind of bridging social capital necessary to unlock social mobility and become productive workers while in school.
A pathways partnership expansion framework
The Pathways to Prosperity Network, an alliance of more than 60 regional pathway programs across the country, has identified four aspects of career-focused pathway programs that should guide the expansion of these programs.
Sequenced academic curriculum. Programs should include requirements aligned with labor market needs (i.e., supply and demand in the community), a timeline guiding young people, and a genuine student career credential.
Introducing students to work and careers no later than middle school. Students should start with activities such as guest speakers and field trips in middle school and then move to career exposure in high school through mentorships, internships, and working in an occupation. Work-based learning experience should be integrated into classroom discussions and challenge young people with real-world tasks that help them understand labor market demands. Discussions should include academic and technical knowledge and the “soft skills” needed for a career.
The indispensable role of employers, industry associations, and other mediating institutions. Employers and their affiliates must set program standards and define the skills and competencies students need to attain a certificate and employment. They should provide paid apprenticeships offering work experience and assist in assessing a young person’s employment readiness. Other community groups should assist with convening, organizing, and planning and provide program and work placement navigation and social support services for students (and their families). Examples of intermediaries include community foundations, community colleges, chambers of commerce, private industry councils, the Salvation Army, and United Way.
Policy leaders’ key role in these programs. Policies at the local, state, and federal levels create the framework that facilitates program expansion. The policy framework includes executive orders and directives by federal, state, or local governance entities. For example, a policy creating incentives for K–12, postsecondary, labor, and workforce groups to integrate distinct funding streams would allow for a new approach to financial support for pathways programs.
Partnership model examples
Career pathways partnership models can be structured in many ways in the above framework. Here are five.
District, charter, and university partnerships. Wiseburn Unified School District in Los Angeles County and its partner Da Vinci Charter School have more than one hundred business and nonprofit partners offering students programs—including internships, mentorships, workshops, boot camps, and consultancies—with student mental health and counseling services. Students can also pursue associate or bachelor’s degree programs through University of California, Los Angeles, Extension; El Camino College; or College for America.
In Boston, Match Charter Public School, in partnership with Duet and Southern New Hampshire University, assists students with college completion and career placement, including student coaching and mentoring and accredited associate and bachelor’s degrees. The program includes comprehensive career services such as job searches and support through the hiring process for up to two years after graduation.
Catholic schools and corporate partnerships. Cristo Rey is a network of thirty-five Catholic high schools in twenty-two states serving low-income, mostly minority students that integrates four years of academics with work experience through its Corporate Work Study Program. This nonprofit placement service works with more than 3,400 partners to situate students five days a month in an entry-level professional job. Students earn 60 percent of tuition through employment, with the balance coming from fundraising and a small family contribution.
Public-private partnerships. The Atlanta business community, Fulton County Schools, and Junior Achievement created a public-private partnership called 3-D Education. This project-based learning approach includes a six-week case study beginning in eleventh grade that pairs students with coaches in off-campus industrial and professional settings.
Citywide partnerships. In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce NOLA works with open enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid student internships for seniors. This is followed by ninety hours of work placement in a career pathway with opportunities including biology and health sciences, digital media and information technology, and skilled crafts such as architecture and water management. It also has a family engagement program educating parents about the career pathways program.
Private Enterprise. In Indianapolis, Kenzie Academy is a venture-funded technology and apprenticeship program for students from varying backgrounds, including high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and those with master’s degrees seeking new occupational opportunities. Students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm. To make the $24,000-a-year program accessible, students have an income share agreement delaying that payment until they have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie Academy partners with Butler University so students can receive a certificate from both organizations.
The twentieth-century high school movement created a remarkable educational transformation in America. Today, we can advance a new high school movement that treats schools as formative institutions that build social capital for young people by integrating students with employers and work.
Programs like those detailed above help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self that leads to adult success and a lifetime of opportunity. They place student activity, engagement, relationship building, and networking at the center of their design and use different approaches to develop habits of mind and habits of association in young people. They create new ways that K–12 education can develop an individual’s talents to his or her full potential, increasing that person’s ability to pursue opportunity over a lifetime. Finally, they catalyze the creation of high-opportunity communities. School and community career pathways partnership models ought to be replicated in more school districts, charter schools, and public-private settings.
Perhaps it is only when we lose something that we realize its true value. A recent study by Matthew Kraft and Manuel Monti-Nussbaum finds that in-person teaching time in the classroom—now a precious commodity that many students and teachers won’t experience again for a while—was not properly safeguarded when we had it.
This mostly descriptive study examines an understudied topic: the prevalence of external interruptions during class. That is, interruptions originating from outside the room, such as intercom announcements, visits from other teachers or staff, calls to the teacher’s desk phone, and tardy students. We know that time on task is critical to learning, and that time off-task is detrimental, so the study asks whether we make the best use of the time we’ve got in K–12 classrooms.
Researchers collected data in a medium-sized urban school district, identified as Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, in 2017 and 2018. Providence, which serves mostly families of color and low-income students (80 percent receive subsidized lunches), is broadly representative of urban public school systems except that it serves more Hispanic students. Analysts had two years of school climate data from Panorama Education surveys administered annually to administrators, teachers, and students in grades three to twelve. They added questions about external interruptions to the surveys and roughly seventy-five administrators, 1,500 teachers, and 14,000 students responded in both years. They also recruited high schools to participate in the portion of the study wherein classrooms were observed for external interruptions. Researchers collected data in the classrooms of ten teachers in five high schools, not randomly chosen, but nonetheless a huge value added to the survey data alone. The teachers were mostly white and had an average of ten years of experience. If we suppose that experienced teachers are better at getting students back on track after interruptions, the observational results are likely conservative.
The research team observed a total of sixty-three class periods between March and June 2017, using a purposive approach that ensured coverage of different grade levels and subjects, days in the week, and periods in the day. On average, classes were sixty-six minutes long and had fourteen students in attendance. Besides the interruption type, observers noted what occurred immediately after the interruption, describing any disruption caused by the interruption (e.g., Tony comes in late due to a speeding ticket and explains to five other students how he was pulled over). In the sixty-three observed periods, they recorded a total of 185 external interruptions. This translates to 2.9 interruptions per hour of class or 15.3 per school day on average. There was substantial variation across the five schools, however, ranging from 8.7 to 24.3 interruptions per school day. Interestingly, the observation estimate of 15.3 per school day is quite close to what teachers and students self-reported on surveys in these same schools, which was 13.9 and 12.3 interruptions per day, respectively.
Students arriving late were the leading source of external interruption, comprising 38 percent of the total. Second were visits by other teachers, staff, or administrators, amounting to 17 percent of the total. None of those visits were unannounced teacher evaluations; they tended to be other teachers looking to borrow materials or office staff delivering messages to students. Intercom announcements were 14 percent of the total, and calls to desk phones rounded out the top four, comprising 12 percent of interruptions. Survey data from teachers support the observational data in showing that late students are the most common source of interruption, followed by the intercom, and calls to classroom phones.
Interruptions occurred most often from 8:00–9:00 a.m. and 2:00 –3:00 p.m.—the beginning and end of the school day. Over half of the interruptions ended up in disruptions that lasted longer than the interruption itself. Accounting for all of this, the average length of time lost for each interruption and possible disruption was seventy-eight seconds. Kraft and Monti-Nussbaum project that students lose nearly ten days across an academic year due to external interruptions. Even taking out the most-common interruption—tardy students—it is still 6.7 lost days’ worth of instructional time. Correlational data show a negative relationship between the frequency of external interruptions and student achievement on math and English language arts PARCC tests.
The authors note that most of the observed interruptions (intercom announcements, classroom phone calls, and classroom visits) are fully within the power of school leaders to address. For instance, Success Academy shows that, with proper handling, outside intrusions can be curtailed with minimal time off task. Sure, they and other high-performing schools might also choose to extend the school day or year for additional instructional time, but they wring every productive minute from their regular time, too.
It may be the biggest and lengthiest interruption of all—the pandemic-induced halt of in-classroom instruction—that forces schools to make the best use of their in-person teaching time when it returns. Let’s hope they are ready to protect it.
SOURCE: Matthew A. Kraft and Manuel Monti-Nussbaum, “The Big Problem with Little Interruptions to Classroom Learning,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (May 2020).
A newly released study by The Harris Poll fielded during the first week of August finds that 57 percent of parents of school-age children “wish schools would just cancel this fall and re-open in the spring.” An even higher percentage of fathers—63 percent—say so. These sentiments likely reflect both the extent of frustration with the quality of remote learning last spring and a lack of trust in schools’ ability to facilitate safe, full-time, in-person learning.
This nationally representative online survey of more than 1,000 parents of five- to seventeen-year-olds posed questions related to the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years, focusing particularly on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the spring school closures, 60 percent of parents report that their enrolled children spent three hours or less on school work on a typical day. And just 15 percent spent six or more hours. Moreover, almost half of all parents, 46 percent, appear to be OK with capping daily schoolwork at three hours or less in the fall. This all bolsters concerns about academic losses caused by remote learning, suggesting that an inferior method of delivering instruction will likely be made worse by less time spent on schoolwork.
And indeed, remote learning is going to feature into the vast majority of children’s education in the fall, as only 23 percent of families (among those who had been notified by the time of the survey) report that they even have the option of fully in-person schooling, and only 21 percent would choose it—if available—as the ideal instructional method. Forty-three percent prefer that schools be all virtual, and 36 percent favor hybrid.
These data suggest that parents are prioritizing health over learning and that they don’t trust schools to create and maintain safe environments. When asked what their biggest concerns were about the upcoming school year, the leading answer among parents with children entering school this fall—61 percent—was the child’s mental health. Next, at 59 percent, was their physical health and safety. A majority also reported being concerned about harm to their children’s education, social lives, and extracurricular activities. And 58 percent of parents say they will have to make, or have made, tough decisions about staying in the work force or staying home if schools don’t offer in-person instruction in the fall. Yet they still overwhelming reject fully in-person learning.
The survey results also suggest that more parents than ever are willing to make big changes to their children’s education this school year in response to the pandemic and its effects. Fourteen percent of parents report participating in learning pods, for example, which have gotten a lot of press lately. And a whopping 18 percent of moms and dads plan to change schools or switch to homeschooling this year.
No matter the metric, parents are clearly unsure how to balance health and learning, and are frustrated by the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 in America. Perhaps that’s why a strong majority wish schools would just cancel fall school, and pick it up in early 2021: It would really simplify things. It would also, of course, complicate already disturbing learning gaps.
Note on the survey method: The survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll from August 4–7, 2020, among 1,002 parents of children ages five to seventeen (“school age children”). Results were weighted for age within gender, region, race/ethnicity, household income, education, and size of household where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. Full results are available from The Harris Poll upon request.