Education Policy as Culture War

Thirty years ago, when asked to define the purpose of public education, the president of America’s second-largest teachers’ union answered: “Public schools were created for the purpose of teaching immigrant children reading, writing, and arithmetic and what it means to be an American.”

Today’s teachers’ unions have taken a 180-degree turn to the left.

Last year, the National Education Association formally rejected a resolution to “re-dedicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning in every public school in America.” But it adopted a resolution to incorporate the concept of “white fragility” into their professional development, in an effort to dismantle “white supremacy culture,” which the White Fragility educator guide defines as essentially synonymous with American civilization—i.e., “the overarching political, economic, and social system of domination that describes the culture we live in.”

Conservatives should be expected to carry the torch for educating literate, numerate, patriotic citizens, but in recent years they have been mostly mum about K-12 education. And that’s what makes How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools so timely and necessary. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Chester E. Finn and Michael Petrilli commissioned essays by 18 prominent conservative intellectuals, prompting them to “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.”

The result lays the intellectual groundwork for a policy agenda that conservatives should strongly consider.

Back to Basics

In his contribution, “Back to Basics for Conservative Education Reform,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin notes that, although the education reform movement had noteworthy successes, it became “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.”

The old bipartisan consensus about higher academic standards and test-based accountability imploded after the Bush and Obama administrations pushed policies at the federal level that would have been better left to states and school districts. The rushed, botched, and ultimately academically harmful implementation of the Common Core—backed by billions of federal and tens of millions of philanthropic dollars—engendered a bipartisan backlash from the teachers’ union Left and the Tea Party Right. For conservatives, the Common Core has made virtually any broader discussion about education policy radioactive; best to just say “local control” and be done with it.

For their part, the Left wasted no time in getting “back to basics” with an intersectionalist spin. Old ideas about education as an engine of liberation from oppression were recast with teachers playing the role of racist oppressor. Biased teacher perceptions and micro-aggressions, not family and community factors, were blamed for racial gaps in achievement and discipline, making anti-bias training for teachers “a matter of life or death” for students of color, according to New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza.

It’s an unpleasant position to argue against, given the alacrity with which some liberals label their interlocutors racist. Better to advance an alternative, positive vision. Levin declares, “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.”

For most of human history, that claim would not have been controversial. But to argue it today, Levin says, “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.”

The points of overlap among the essayists point to fronts that could be fought in that education policy culture war.

First: family. Ian Rowe, a visiting fellow at AEI and CEO of Public Prep (a network of single-sex charter schools in New York City), notes that states don’t collect data on students’ family backgrounds. In the absence of such data, racial disparities in achievement and discipline are blamed entirely on the school, fostering a vision of society where the primary locus of life lies between atomized individuals and oppressive institutions. If states collected data on student family background, racial disparities would be tempered and put into truer context, enabling policymakers to focus less on fixing “institutional racism” in schools and more on supporting struggling families.

In the charter schools he runs, Rowe teaches his students the data about the “success sequence”: if an individual graduates high school, gets a job, waits until age 21 to marry, and has children within wedlock, he’ll have only a two percent chance of living in poverty.

If Mona Charen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center had her way, all students would learn these facts. “Just as poor students,” she writes, “should know that the best colleges are available to them if they are academically prepared, shouldn’t they know that certain personal choices are likely to result in a middle class life?”

Progressive endeavors like the 1619 Project could provide the wakeup call red states need to revamp their history and civics curriculum.

Such a proposal is sure to engender political controversy. But if the California legislature can push schools to teach fourth graders about masturbation, surely the Texas legislature could push schools to teach high schoolers about family formation.

Such instruction could take place during health class or during career counseling which, former AEI president Arthur Brooks stresses, should open students’ eyes to “legitimate paths to pursue other than college.”

Rather than stress a “college-for-all” mentality, which implicitly detracts from the dignity of individuals who don’t obtain a bachelor’s degree, schools should expose students to the data suggesting that college can often be a raw deal. (For example, my Manhattan Institute has pointed out that half of students who enroll in college fail to graduate, and that 40 percent of graduates land jobs that don’t require college degrees.)

Rather than funnel money into “free college,” Brooks argues, policymakers should put greater investment behind career and technical education, apprenticeships, and public-private partnerships between local businesses and high schools.

And rather than get swept up in K-12 education’s latest fad, social-emotional learning (SEL), conservatives should restore the notion of character education. SEL advocates will privately admit that they abandoned the term “character education” because it sounded too conservative. Rather than explicitly extol virtues, SEL promotes “competencies” through role-playing and gamified behavior-management systems.

Maybe schools should just do what they used to: teach morals through stories. In his introduction to a paperback reissue of a McGuffey Reader, once a staple textbook in American schools from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, historian Henry Steele Commager Jr. wrote:

What is most impressive in the McGuffey readers is the morality. … [T]here is rarely a page but addresses itself to some moral problem, points up some moral lesson—industry, sobriety, thrift, propriety, modesty. These were essential virtues and those who practiced them were sure of success.

Why not bring McGuffey back?

Conservatives may feel squeamish about prescribing particular curricula. But in his essay, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett notes that “the lack of conservative consensus on content has real and negative consequences. It leaves reform advocates without practical ammunition to move forward. And the vacuum cedes the field to the other side, which knows very well what it intends to do.”

Countering a Corrosive Ideology

Hovering behind all of these essays is the New York Times’s 1619 Project. The publicly stated purpose of 1619 is to teach students the horrors and legacies of slavery. But 1619’s architect Nikole Hannah-Jones has openly admitted, “when my editor asks me, like, what’s your ultimate goal for the project, my ultimate goal is that there’ll be a reparations bill passed.” This is, she explained, “more realistic than, like can we get white Americans to stop being white.”

1619 is part of a broader enterprise by progressives, as Jonah Goldberg, editor of The Dispatch, puts it in his essay, to “discredit the ideals of our past in favor of a stunted future that they can control.” There may be slim chance of dislodging 1619 from major urban districts led by bureaucrats who see calls to “dismantle whiteness” as “anti-racist.” But 1619 could provide the wakeup call red states need to revamp their history and civics curriculum.

Although several essayists and the volume’s editors decry the fact that schools too often teach the Howard Zinn narrative of American history, the bigger problem may be—as historian David McCullough has complained—that our textbooks are just plain boring. There is, as Eliot Cohen, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, notes in his essay, no shortage of entertaining “patriotic history” and literature. States could put their thumb on the scale to encourage schools to incorporate these works into their curriculum.

States could also find ways to steer schools and teachers toward higher-quality history and civics curriculum and professional development. In their essay, Adam Meyerson and Adam Kissel draw attention to work the Philanthropy Roundtable has done promoting projects such as the Bill of Rights Institute’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” digital textbook, and the Ashbrook Center’s Teaching American History initiative to guide teachers through seminal civic texts. States could simply require that every social studies teacher take a professional development seminar to read the Declaration, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and other core documents. States could also follow Louisiana’s lead, steering local school districts toward a higher-quality curriculum, stacking the deck in favor of a Core Knowledge approach.

Reviewing the essays in their volume, Petrilli and Finn articulate a conservative answer to the question: what is the purpose of public education? It is, they say, for promoting character, virtue, and morality, and for preparing informed citizens to lead productive lives. It’s an answer that used to be conventional wisdom, but that to articulate today would touch off a culture war.

In a country where only 19 percent of people under 45 can pass a citizenship test, where less than a quarter of citizens know why we fought the British for independence, and where adults aged 18-29 view socialism more favorably than capitalism, there could be fewer priorities more urgent than to fight this war. To equip themselves for battle, state and local leaders would be wise to read How to Educate an American.