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A “Back to the Future” Agenda for Education?

By Vladimir Kogan

America’s public education system is ripe for an overhaul — and desperately in need of a coherent reform agenda to bring one about. It’s time to wrest control of the schools from out-of-touch education bureaucrats and the ideological groupthink that dominates the teacher training-policy complex. For too long, our schools have focused on the clinical, technocratic, and academic — think drudgery of reading, writing, and arithmetic — while giving short shrift to career and technical education and the arts. And they have largely abandoned the cultivation of character and skills necessary for democratic self-government and citizenship.

  This is the trumpet call of Rick Hess and Michael McShane in their essay (adapted from their new book) making the case for a rejuvenated and more confrontational conservative education movement. Ironically, a variant of these same criticisms also motivated the emergence of Progressive education reformers, who rose prominence in the early decades of the 20th Century. Associated with leaders such as philosopher John Dewey, the Progressives dominated the intellectual and policy conversation in education during much of the past 100 years. During this period, conservatives often saw themselves as fighting a rearguard battle against the Progressive takeover of schools, demanding a “back to basics” approach that emphasized core academic subjects and traditional methods of teaching — ideas that the new conservative education paradigm seems willing to reject.

  To be sure, there are important differences between these two visions. For example, while Progressives advocated for shifting the locus of power from professional educators to children themselves, who would play a much more active role in their own learning, Hess and McShane advocate empowering parents, so that families can exercise their “fundamental right to choose a school that works for their child and reflects their values.” Both sides, no doubt, would bristle at my comparison. And yet, conservatives would do well to consider some of the lessons learned from the ideological excesses of the Progressive era.

  In their effort to use the schools to promote a more perfect political union, prominent Progressive educators such as George Counts seemed enamored with the example of the Soviet Union — at least, until the staged trials purging Stalin’s rivals of the late 1930s — and advocated that the American school system be coopted to bring about an end to the exploitative system of capitalism. One can easily imagine that some populist conservatives who look with admiration at Hungary’s authoritarian leader Victor Orban might be tempted to borrow some of his education policies — including a national curriculum that promotes patriotism and Christian values — in their efforts to inculcate America First and celebrate the traditional family. Hess and McShane expressly reject such indoctrination, calling for teaching that is “textured, inclusive, and devoid of political agendas.” But it is hard to discern clear limiting principles once one embraces the idea that schools should play an active role in the defense of “shared values” and the creation of “democratic citizens.”

  At times, efforts to build a Progressive big tent also resulted in a hodgepodge of contradictory ideas. One can see similar risks in aspects of the Hess and McShane agenda. For example, it is not obvious how to reconcile parent empowerment and school choice with the idea that schools should promote shared civic and cultural values. Indeed, one could anticipate situations in which the same parents who take advantage of choice options to move their own kids to private schools nevertheless insist that the public schools push their preferred patriotic and traditional viewpoints on the students left behind.

  And today’s conservative reformers face an additional challenge that the Progressives never did: A highly polarized political landscape and media ecosystem. Hess and McShane are right that public opinion today favors conservatives on many educational issues. But this largely reflects a popular backlash against woke excesses of the cultural left, not durable support for a comprehensive conservative education agenda. A concerted effort to articulate and then promote such an agenda — especially if closely associated with a highly partisan and divisive political leader — will no doubt provoke a similar backlash from the opposite direction, eroding support even for policies that seem widely popular today.

  We do not need to look far back in history to find examples of these dynamics. Although President Donald J. Trump showed mercifully little interest in substantive education issues during his term, we did get a glimpse of the potential for polarization of education in the debates about the resumption of in-person learning during the pandemic. President Trump’s public call that schools reopen in fall 2020 caused public opinion on the issue to divide sharply along partisan lines almost overnight, and helped explain why schools in heavily Democratic districts remained closed for so long. Imagine if he had also publicly and prominently embraced career and technical education, college accreditation reform, or an increase in federal funding for school resource officers. These policies might be set back for years.

  Another useful example is today’s widespread support for the “science of reading,” a bipartisan effort that has produced significant legislation to improve how reading is taught in American schools across the country. Much of the credit belongs to (scrupulously nonpartisan) public radio journalist Emily Hanford, whose “Sold a Story” podcast helped catalyze policy change in states both red and blue.

  But reading reform wasn’t always so bipartisan. In one episode in her audio documentary, Hanford describes President George W. Bush’s support for Reading First, an earlier federal effort to promote more scientifically grounded reading instruction that was included in the No Child Left Behind Act. “Forget it, I wasn’t going to do any of that,” a Seattle teacher tells Hanford. “And, you know, I wasn’t necessarily rejecting the curriculum as much as I was rejecting Bush.”

  In the 1990s, California was the epicenter of legislative debates about reading instruction. When Atlantic journalist Nicholas Lemann visited the state for his report on the so-called “Reading Wars,’’ he recounted that “the two sides have one of the purest and angriest disagreements I’ve ever encountered.” An anonymous California legislator told him: “We’re in the midst of a huge war.” Another source claimed the reading debate was “worse than abortion.” It is hard to imagine such divisions over reading today precisely because the issue has shed the partisan and ideological backage it had just a few decades ago.

  If conservatives reject the “bipartisan comity” that characterized the standards-based reforms during the Bush-Obama era, we should expect a return to bareknuckle fighting. That might make for good adult politics and help build solidarity between the populist and traditional right. But it is hard to see how America’s students — or its economy, national security, technological innovation and every other policy priority that depends on an educated populace — would benefit from turning every school board election into a proxy partisan war. And it would mean bringing to American suburbs, the battleground where the two sides remain roughly evenly matched, the dysfunctions that have long marred struggling urban districts, including a revolving door of superintendents and staff turnover following every election in which control of the local school board changes partisan hands.

  One of the most trenchant warnings about the dangers of blurring the line between adult movement politics and the needs of America’s students comes from John Dewey himself. After observing several decades of the Progressive approaches often attributed to his intellectual inspiration implemented in the wild, Dewey was not particularly happy with what he saw. He set out to articulate his critiques in a short 1938 book titled Experience and Education. Reformers “who are looking ahead to a new movement in education, adapted from the existing need for a new social order, should think in terms of Education itself rather than in terms of some ‘ism about education, even such an ‘ism as ‘progressivism,’” he warned in the preface to the volume. “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them.”

  Early 20th century progressives learned this lesson the hard way. Today’s conservative thought leaders would be well advised to avoid repeating their mistakes.


Vladimir Kogan is a professor of political science at Ohio State University.




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