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Bringing an End to National Education Reforms

Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard said recently that the Common Core state standards will ultimately be nothing more than another pile of ashes on the smoldering fire of national education reform. His excellent article reviewed the long and sorry history of such efforts, detailing how the Common Core came to replace George W. Bush’s vaunted (and then hated) No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, itself an effort to replace President Clinton’s Goals 2000, which superceded, that’s right, George H.W. Bush’s America 2000.

Ferguson mocks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pronouncement that the Common Core is the most revolutionary education reform ever by deadpanning: What, did he forget Goals 2000?

Sad to say, if we go back even farther, we may have to fault President Reagan with laying the reform-mania groundwork with his 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” Its call for higher standards in education, Ferguson notes, was an attempt to go around President Carter’s newly created federal Department of Education that was founded, in part, to address floundering public schools.

After the succession of reforms have all been tried and found wanting, where do we turn? On what comes after the failure of the Common Core, Ferguson is pretty pessimistic:

The educationists will grow restless. Someone somewhere will come up with a new reform program, a whole new approach—one with teeth, and high-stakes consequences for stakeholders. Bill Gates will get wind of it. He will be intrigued. His researchers will design experiments to make sure the program is scientifically sound. Data will be released at seminars, and union leadership will lend tentative support. The president will declare a crisis and make reform a national priority. She will want to be called an education president too.

He’s probably right. Nonetheless, we still need to ask why these reforms fail.

One perennial answer: federal education reforms fail because these directives require too much of too many institutional players in American education. Call it the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. Successful implementation would require that federal agents take federal law and accompanying enforcement regulations and sit on the shoulders of teachers, school boards, even state departments of education to ensure that the reforms are carried out. But what about the parents?

Even if a reform represents a solid improvement on existing practices and standards, the immense gulf that separates the lackluster pedagogical present from the much-improved future is too wide for reformers to bridge. As Frederick Hess noted in National Affairs:

First, state and federal policymakers do not run schools; they merely write laws and regulations telling school districts what principals and teachers ought to do. And second, schooling is a complex, highly personal endeavor, which means that what happens at the individual level — the level of the teacher and the student — is the most crucial factor in separating failure from success. In education, there is often a vast distance between policy and practice.

The Common Core’s great triumph was that it found a way through this impasse, so it seemed, with copious amounts of Gates Foundation dollars. Advocates got the important education think tanks, Left and Right, on their side, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, the national and many local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce. The coup de grace was the Department of Education’s linking “Race to the Top” dollars with acceptance of the Common Core standards. Cash-strapped states in 2009 lunged at the opportunity; several states applied before the standards were actually formalized.

Even so, failure is going to arrive as surely as the federal deficit will rise. Will anyone bemoan this? For that matter, does anyone look back wistfully to those heady days when NCLB was initially foisted on schools from coast to coast? No. The reasons go beyond the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. They reach to what education is supposed to develop within man. For the truth is that national reforms fail not only technically, but in actually recruiting our sentiments, and thereby securing our abiding consent to their handiwork.

In thinking about this, we should contemplate the 1943 lectures delivered by Jacques Maritain that were published in a book entitled Education at the Crossroads. Obviously the occasion—Europe’s renewed plunge into world war–that produced his thoughts does not match ours. But the arguments Maritain gives on the ends or purposes of education remain sound.

Maritain begins with “the two most general misconceptions against which education must guard itself.” The first is

a lack or disregard of ends. If means are liked and cultivated for the sake of their own perfection, and not as a means alone, to that very extent they cease to lead to the end, and art loses its practicality; its vital efficiency is replaced by a process of infinite multiplication, each means developing and spreading for its own sake. This supremacy of means over end and the consequent collapse of all sure purpose and real efficiency seem to be the main reproach to contemporary education.

Do we confuse the means and ends in the reforms that stretch from 1983 to today? Are we even able to identify ends beyond a raw utilitarian concern with producing workers for a global economy? The guiding standard for the Common Core is, famously, making students “college and career ready.” So we might say that we have an end, a more or less materialistic end, that reduces education to a technical function of aiding economic growth. Such needs, I think, are almost boundless. Can we ever do enough to aid economic growth? Could an education system so conceived, so purposed, ever truly be free from state control?

Maritain notes that when contemporary educational thinking isn’t confusing means and ends, it still proves unable to reason coherently on what ends it should pursue:

The educational task is both greater and more mysterious and, in a sense, humbler than many imagine. If the aim of education is the helping and guiding of man toward his own human achievement, education cannot escape the problems and entanglements of philosophy, for it supposes by its very nature a philosophy of man, and from the outset it is obliged to answer the question: “What is man?”

The Common Core presupposes that man is merely a worker, an economic entity, one called to respond to the needs of an employer in a dutiful manner. We see this most directly in its “lexile” framework that deliberately subordinates literature and history texts to the study of “information texts” or policy and news writings. This order of priority is, we are told, more relevant to the needs of employers.

We can return to Maritain’s question: Is this an education of man, or an education for a type of man fitting the needs of a society? If the latter, then it will be hard to avoid the state’s summoning education “to make up for all that is lacking in the surrounding order,” in Maritain’s words. The result of this, he says, is that “education would become a function directly and uniquely dependent on the management of the state, and the educational body an organ of state machinery.”

Our problem is that we struggle, as a result of our own feeble public reasoning, to entertain any understanding of the purpose of education beyond the rigid categories of what can be measured and assessed. This techno-vocational understanding of education may be inevitable in any society that can no longer see the purpose of a free society residing in the spirit of the person.

In short, is education for the person or for the state? Rejecting the techno-vocational system of education requires a commitment to an alternative understanding of man as a being of purpose, one whose spiritual capacities of reason, will, and wonder require educational institutions that support the flourishing of these capacities, that draw them out in study and reflection, and that lead the person to be the cause of his education. Not only is this vital essence missing from the latest federal educational reform fad, such a reform can’t even contemplate its existence.

Reader Discussion

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on September 05, 2014 at 09:13:22 am

To the extent that education is funded with state raised taxes, and administered and taught by state paid employees, government will be implicated in education. This has been the status of education in the various united states since the days of Horace Mann. It is silly to suggest that a particular goal--in this case economic growth--will produce more state involvement in education than some other, since the state has been thoroughly involved in education since the very beginning of the public school movement, in the 19th century.

If our concern is state intervention in education, it is an egregious error to presume that somehow the governments below the federal level are not governments. Whether state government or federal, education is still going to be a matter of public concern so long as it is funded with tax payer monies. Given the obvious advantages of public education over the alternative (good and plentiful formal education for the very wealthy and progressively less for the rest of the population), education will continue to receive attention from and oversight from various levels of government. In this sense education will always fall short of the libertarian ideal.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 12:29:03 pm

First, the central question posed is whether education is for the person or for the state? The answered is best arrived at through state and local government—I see nothing in the constitution authorizing federal involvement.

Second, Kevin’s dichotomy is false since the choice is not either highly centralized and unionized public schools or private schools for the rich. Catholic schools already provide an excellent education that includes the poor and middle-class, and vouchers would permit access to many types school formats. This latter method would have the advantage of insuring public, i.e., fair and equal, funding, while allowing the parents rather than the state to answer the central question posed above. I can’t think of a better Hayekian solution.

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Ron Johnson
on September 05, 2014 at 12:59:31 pm

Richard:

This is an excellent essay in that it gets to the crux of the matter: what is the purpose of education; for what is it intended; and for what type of being is it purposed? Regrettably, it appears that a) we have determined that education is for "homo economicus" and b) we have, via aggressive state intervention, have laid the groundwork for further "purposive" interventions in the soon to arrive form of "social justice" education whereby the state initiates all sorts of corrective measures to address certain proscribed "inequalities."

Yet, Kevin, truly implicates the demon in this matter - state funding of education. Indeed, in my own state, the state Constitution mandates that "education is the "primary" duty of the state. One need not speculate as to how this will turn out. State Judges now (and have historically) determined funding levels for schools in the state and are currently poised to hold the Legislature in contempt for "inadequate" funding. Witness, California's recent requirement that all education must make mention of the historical importance of the election of Obama.
It is not just the focus on economic matters that plagues, and will continue to plague, current educational models but also the rapidly emerging "social justice" curricula that is being implemented.
So long as the state funds education, such distortions will continue.

And yet, (Kevin may correct me here) as I recall this was not always the case. Early American education, while being in part state funded (although on a truly local level) did allow for significant variation in educational methods, philosophies, and yes, religious doctrines.
If only such "diversity" were to be again permitted in our diversity crazed society. Of course, that would mean the loss of tens of thousands of Federal and State bureaucrats - more is the pity!!!!

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gabe
on September 05, 2014 at 13:05:24 pm

How I could forget this, I don't know!

Being a product of Catholic schools, I must say that Ron Johnson is absolutely correct. These schools offer, in my estimation, a far superior alternative to public schools, and are, in fact, open to all. Yes, there is tuition to be dealt with but a system that would allow education dollars to follow the student would certainly be helpful in this matter.
Moreover, at least in my case, the schools were always ready to accept deserving students who could not otherwise afford the tuition. I suspect that approach still applies.

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gabe
on September 05, 2014 at 15:35:18 pm

The telos of public education at its origin was education for citizenship--Mann, Webster, and Jefferson, despite their differences, all agreed that a public society premised on popular sovereignty required citizens capable of self government and possessed of the right public dispositions. Among these dispositions was something akin to thumos--a rightly ordered emotional commitment to civic virtue and to the public project represented by the small-r republican state.

Catholic education, for all of its excellence, can not fulfill the goal to which Jefferson (and so many others) were committed. We may choose to disagree with these 18th and 19th century thinkers, but it seems to me that we must take them seriously. Our kind of state, at least originally, did not stand on its own. All states strive to preserve themselves. If ours is good, or at least better than most, then we should attend seriously to the argument that nourishment of appropriate civic dispositions is a legitimate public purpose.

I would add that the current emphasis on vocational education is every bit as hostile to the ends of cultivating private virtue as public. I do not seek here to defend the narrow and parched understanding of education embodied by our current educational system.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 15:51:00 pm

An additional thought--nothing in what I write here should be construed as support for "highly centralized and unionized" public schools. I wrote nothing that should be construed as support for our current status quo, and to suggest that I did is rather uncivil. Please do not erect straw men out of my words and sentences.

What I did point out is that "the state" encompasses much more than just the Federal government; that public schools since their inception have been supported by public monies; and that so long as that is the case, the state will be thoroughly implicated in education. I also suggested that private education, the excellent Catholic system not-withstanding, can not (and should not) strive to replace public education. That is an argument I have extended, in my second post, above.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 16:09:01 pm

Kevin:

We are in agreement in all but one area covered by your comments as we both recognize the inherent problems with "highly centralized and unionized" schools.

Where I would disagree is in your assertion that Catholic education can not fulfill the goals esposed by many of the Founders.
"The telos of public education at its origin was education for citizenship–Mann, Webster, and Jefferson, despite their differences, all agreed that a public society premised on popular sovereignty required citizens capable of self government and possessed of the right public dispositions. Among these dispositions was something akin to thumos–a rightly ordered emotional commitment to civic virtue and to the public project represented by the small-r republican state."

I can not speak for the present generation of Catholic educators and considering the leftward swing of many of these schools you may be on to something. However, I can assure you that the education I received in both elementary and high schools fit this description to a tee, as they say. We had extensive schooling in civics, history, philosophy and the "Great Works." The responsibilities of citizenship in our republic were also stressed - indeed, it could be said that in today's world much of what we were taught would be dismissed as too "patriotic."
Of course, it was not. Rather, an emphasis was placed on both opportunity and as our fellow commentor R. Richard reminds us, our obligations.
Was this also part of a core of religious instruction? Yes, it was. That fact, however, should not diminish the value of the instruction or teachings. After all, most local schools, and they were supported by local tax levies, were religious in orientation. The Founders did insist upon a core of religious values as part of "civic virtue."
You are more familiar with their writings and I am certain you could find some to support such a notion.

I should also point out that there is a general misconception as to what is taught in Catholic schools. Many people I have encountered seem to believe that such education is primarily concerned with religious indoctrination. That was certainly not true in my case and this was an education that began in the mid-1950's.
I suspect the level of such instruction has further diminished in the intervening years.

In fact, now that I think of it, I may pay for my upcoming grandchild's education in such a school.

take care
gabe

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gabe
on September 05, 2014 at 16:33:31 pm

Kevin, you said: “Given the obvious advantages of public education over the alternative (good and plentiful formal education for the very wealthy and progressively less for the rest of the population), education will continue to receive attention from and oversight from various levels of government. In this sense education will always fall short of the libertarian ideal.” I assumed you were speaking of actual public schools as opposed to some theoretical public school system; if I misunderstood, I am indeed sorry and certainly I did not mean to be uncivil.

However, centralized and unionized schools are the inevitable product of government schools insulated from competition. Additionally, the actual centralized and unionized public schools we have do an absolutely terrible job of teaching the civic virtues we all value. I can think of no remedy save competition among various modes of schooling to bring about the improvement needed.

PS: You really should check out my wife's middle school history class at St. Austin Catholic School if you want to see the teaching of civic virtues!

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Ron
on September 05, 2014 at 16:38:07 pm

Some years ago Murray Rothbard wrote a powerhouse extended essay on the corrosive power of state compulsion in the world of education. I suggest that his perspectives merit a place in your conversations. .

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G. M. Curtis
on September 05, 2014 at 16:55:59 pm

Any solution put forth to solve education problems nationally will be steeped in the political philosophy of the person making the argument for their solution. Those who think giant, top-down ideas like "common core" are best, will want to implement a large behemoth that will be forced on everyone. Those who think local solutions are best - and these are a decided minority - will perhaps propose dismantling the collage created over the last one hundred years.

Those of us who teach our kids at home feel that we see through the cracks the experts are trying to hide. You don't need an expert teacher to give someone a great primary and secondary education. All you need is someone who believes in the student and can read.

Instead of more money, more regulations, more federal personnel, what if we dismantled all of that and put it in the hands of local communities.

But these ideas have no political home. As the author pointed out, the two parties that run the country put out the same sort of ideas every four to eight years.

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William Chadwick
on September 05, 2014 at 18:14:08 pm

Gabe--

Thank you--this is most useful. I think you are correct that I was assuming that the end of Catholic education was ultimately spiritual, whereas as I perceive it that of public education should be civic. But at a deeper level, I guess I should not be surprised. Catholicism conceives of the full human life as lived within spiritual communities, in relationship with God but also in proper relationship with other persons--I perceive Catholic theology as at root hostile to autonomous individualism and thus to some degree in tension with classical liberalism. So it makes sense that a proper Catholic education would take proper cognizance of civic obligations.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 18:17:53 pm

Riffing off of my speculation above, replying to Gabe-- I am not persuaded, although open to being so, that reformed theology encourages the same kind of civic focus in education as I think likely does Catholicism. Thoughts?

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 05, 2014 at 20:47:30 pm

Ron--

Why are unionized schools the inevitable result of lack of competition? In the history of our republic, school unions are (relatively) recent, whereas government oversight by some level of government (usually the jurisdiction that raises the taxes) has been part of the system from the get go.

Centralization strikes me as another matter--but if a jurisdiction raises monies via taxation, I think there is a strong case to make that the folks elected to administer it have an ethical and proper political responsibility to exercise some degree of oversight. So while I think that it is correct that public education entails some degree of public accountability and hence centralization, I find it hard to imagine an ethical alternative.

I posed this question (slightly revised) to Greg Weiner in a private email: If 1.) republican government is a good thing; and if 2.) civic education is necessary for republican government to endure; then what alternative is there to the conclusion that 3.) republican governments have an obligation to nurture civic education.

I do not think that there is any cause whatsoever to doubt that the Catholic school system does in fact do a very good job of nurturing civic education. Everything I have seen of the system is pretty positive, and most people I know who came through it received a terrific and admirable education.

On the other hand, the historian in me wants to inquire as to the historical roots of the current Catholic civic curriculum. If I had to guess, I would ground it in Catholic responses to the realities of the cold war--which is to say that it is contingent. I may very well be wrong about that, though. On the other hand, if it is contingent, and if the outline of the argument I posed to Greg has any merit, then I would wish some assurance that the current civic curriculum will continue into the future. Of course, one of the things that is especially disturbing right now--see for example the revised AP US history curriculum--is the massive shift going on right now in the public school history curriculum away from civic education.

No argument whatsoever that our current public system is flawed, and not likely to improve under current conditions. Lots and lots to worry about here.

All best wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on October 30, 2014 at 08:52:24 am

Thank you for your excellent article.

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Christel Swasey

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