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74 Interview: Veteran Policy Analyst Isabel Sawhill on Schools, Civic Education, and American Identity After Trump

By Kevin Mahnken | February 2, 2021

Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill (Getty Images)

See previous 74 Interviews: Author Jal Mehta on the value of teaching, Harvard scholar David Perkins on “playing the whole game,” and Professor Nell Duke on project-based learning and standards. The full archive is here

On January 6, the divisions in America— partisan, ideological, racial, educational, geographic — combusted in front of millions of witnesses. Isabel Sawhill has spent over a half-century examining those divisions and the social phenomena that have widened them.

A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, she has enjoyed a remarkably influential career writing about the forces that work on families and individuals. While she completed a brief tour in government, serving as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, Sawhill has likely made her biggest impact as a student of poverty, education, inequality and economic opportunity. The issues she has explored, often focusing on the vector of welfare programs and cultural trends, have helped set the agenda for the Washington ideas industry for decades.

Some of those issues, and Sawhill’s proposed remedies, have also stirred significant controversy. Nationally, she may be best known for her advocacy, along with political scientist Ron Haskins, of the “success sequence” — the notion that if young adults wait until after they turn 18, graduate from high school, and gain employment before having children, they are vastly less likely to fall into poverty. The formulation has been happily echoed by some on the Right, while many liberals and libertarians have argued that it mistakes correlation for causation and underplays structural adversity that can’t be conquered by individual responsibility.

In the last two years, Sawhill has addressed her work to some of the most complex questions of the Trump era. In 2018’s The Forgotten Americans, she took stock how the gaping inequalities in economic life have contributed to our political dysfunction. And this fall, she and Brookings colleague Richard Reeves co-authored A New Contract With the Middle Class, which proposes a wide-reaching agenda to improvise American lives across five realms: money, time, relationships, health, and respect.

With one presidential administration now having given way to the next, Sawhill has kept her focus on mending a civic fabric that she believes was badly damaged by President Trump’s four years in office. In this discussion with The 74, conducted just before President Biden’s inauguration, she discussed how schools can promote better civic habits, safeguard social mobility, and shore up battered communities.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: I was really struck by what you wrote in your latest essay for Foreign Affairs — about how so much of politics is now identity politics, and how it can function as a kind of religion funneling people into narrow coalitions. What, if anything, can schools do to address that?

Isabel Sawhill: It’s very clear that we are in a new political environment and a new informational ecosystem. On the political side, we have hyper-partisanship and people dividing in terms of their political affiliation, not so much on disagreements over policy as about disagreements over values and how they think of their own lives. Some would call that identity politics, and it exists on the right and the left.

The group that stormed the Capitol on January 6 was a group whose identity is all bound up with their support of President Trump and what he stands for in terms of bringing back an America that existed in the past: whiter, more traditional, more Christian, more gun-owning. It really wasn’t about disagreements over policy so much as a belief that the election had been stolen, and that speaks to the information ecosystem. The fact that one-third of the electorate right now still believes that the election was stolen is a whole new environment, and it’s going to make it very difficult for President Biden to govern.

Schools have a really important role in figuring out what to do about that. To some extent, this is just a matter of what the truth and the facts are. Is it really true, for instance, that a lot of Democrats are traffickers in children and pedophiles and so forth? I mean, obviously not. But why is it that so many people believe that? The answer is that social media has become very, very effective at spreading untruths and conspiracy theories. Children really need to be taught how to discriminate between good sources of information and bad sources of information, and to learn how to critically assess what they’re seeing.

Do you think it’s necessary to implement some kind of push for media literacy to combat this kind of confirmation bias and misinformation?

In the past, there have been what I might call curators of the truth: scientists and editors and experts and independent agencies that put out objective data. But more recently, even among my own friends and relatives, I find that they sometimes believe something that I know not to be true, and they have a hard time accepting that I might be wrong and they might be wrong — of course it can go the other way around too — because a lot of us are relying on sources that aren’t reliable. We just need fact-checking.

I don’t think the K-12 system has figured out how to deal with that. It’s very easy now for a young person doing a paper or a talk to go on the internet and find every imaginable [source] supporting what they already believe. The challenge is to make them understand that they have to also look at the sources and opinions and analysis that maybe contradicts what they believe.

I’m sure you saw the report of the 1776 Commission convened by President Trump to promote patriotic education. The impetus for that panel was clearly the idea that American students aren’t being taught love of country. Do you think there is a need for a common narrative of American history and its place in the world, whether it comes out of 1619, 1776, or something else?

I think it’s essential that everybody knows American history, but as you’ve suggested, we also now have warring tribes over what that history looked like. The best way to handle that would be to teach that there isn’t full agreement on how we interpret history — there are different views on it, and that can be taught and learned.

My Brookings colleague Bob Litan has written a book that says that students starting in middle school should all learn how to debate, and that it should be part of the curriculum instead of an extracurricular activity. If you’re learning history, you should learn to debate the parts of history in which there are disagreements about what happened and why. There are different points of view, and [children] can learn to both see and appreciate someone else’s point of view, and also learn to better internalize that information and do better in school as a result.

In your 2018 book The Forgotten Americans, you tackle another of our national divides: the challenges facing a working class that has felt cut off from opportunity and prosperity for several generations, and the alienation that results from that. Is there something schools can do to restore upward mobility and, with it, a greater form of social solidarity?

BS: In a lot of my recent work, I’ve tended to focus on people who are already in the workforce and already in the middle class, and that can mean neglecting what happens in the first 18 years of life. But that [period] couldn’t be more critical for improving the lives of Americans, including the American middle class, going forward. If somebody asked me what I’d spend money on if I were a czar and had unlimited resources, I’d say we should pay teachers more. I want to make that occupation more highly valued, more highly rewarded, more highly respected than it is now.

I would want to combine that with some different accountability measures because I think your salary shouldn’t just be a lockstep formula with the years of experience you have; it should depend on your success in your profession, measured in different ways. I don’t think we should base people’s salaries entirely on measures of value added in education, but it should be an element. We need to figure out how to put more money into education, and particularly into teacher salaries because that’s the most important input.

I think that schools, especially high schools, also need to do a better job enabling students to have some civic learning opportunities. In The New Contract with the Middle Class, Richard Reeves and I argue that it’s really important for high schoolers to not only get more civics education, but to actually observe a naturalization ceremony so they understand what being an American is all about and the kind of test that aspiring Americans have to take.

That’s one of our favorite ideas. Richard is actually a naturalized American who went through the ceremony a few years ago, and he found it very moving.

To return to the subject of social divides: There’s also quite a cleavage in terms of access to paid parental leave and high-quality pre-K, given that so many low-income and minority students show up to kindergarten already behind their peers. Some compelling research shows the promise of expanding early childhood education, and President Biden campaigned on a hugely expensive proposal to make pre-K universal. Would that be wise in your view?

I support better early childhood education, but I’d note that there has been some hyping of its benefits. The research on pre-K shows that when it’s high-quality, it can have some positive effects, but they are not the magic bullet that a lot of people seem to be arguing. One reason we need more early education is simply because most families these days don’t have a stay-at-home parent, and public preschool is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: You provide children with early learning experiences, but you also provide help to working parents. If we’re going to provide childcare to most people nowadays — because everybody has to work, that’s just economic reality — why would we not want to use that opportunity to have rich environments for the kids involved?

We are, of course, one of the only countries in the world that does not have a national paid-leave policy. In The Forgotten Americans, I argue not only for parental leave, but also for what I call mid-career leave. Both could be financed through the social insurance system, and mid-career leave would be available to help people retrain for new jobs in an economy that’s evolving very rapidly in response to technological change and globalization. People need opportunities to reboot themselves and get a fresh start, and that’s very hard if you can’t take some time off to maybe take a course at a community college and learn some new skills.

Lots of social scientists would also observe that we’re living through a collapse of trust and social capital as communities — particularly those outside the affluent metropolitan areas — have experienced hard times stretching back way before the pandemic. Do you worry about that playing out in K-12 schools, which many fear are re-segregating on lines of race and class?

The short answer is that I’m very concerned about the kind of trends that [Stanford sociologist] Sean Reardon has emphasized. Schools are neighborhood institutions, and if neighborhoods are becoming more segregated by class or race, that’s a problem. To some extent, this gets into broader issues about how education is financed in the U.S., as well as our zoning practices. There’s been increasing attention paid to the problems with single-family zoning, for instance, but that’s going to be a very tough nut to crack.

The whole conversation about using schools as community hubs is going to be really important in the meantime. They’re a natural place where people can go, including parents, to learn about other community resources. Programs like Communities in Schools that try to make use of schools as centers for building social capital and building other neighborhood strengths are certainly worth supporting.

The past few years have been polarizing ones for the school reform movement. In the past, you’ve written in favor of some aspects of reform, and I’m wondering how you’d advise President Biden to proceed, particularly as his party has grown less comfortable with aspects of school choice and accountability.

The way we used to talk about school accountability was, ‘We care about equity, but we also care about excellence.’ Sometimes there’s going to be a tradeoff between the two, and you try to find the sweet spot where you can have both. I do not think it is wise to oppose charters or school choice; I simply think that’s not consistent with American values.

I thought the way that President Obama handled this whole area was about right, and I very much like the idea of a Race to the Top fund as a way to nudge school reform into new directions. We need more experimentation within limits — I wouldn’t go as far as Betsy DeVos, to be sure — but there are more intelligent ways of doing this, and public school choice has a lot to commend it. In general, my view is that our education system is badly in need of improvement. So while I’d put a lot of emphasis on teacher recruitment and improving rewards for teachers, I don’t want to throw any cold water on other kinds of experimentation.

And I’m certainly in favor of accountability. You have to have it, though you don’t want people teaching to the test.

Most of the issues we’ve talked about are long-standing ones in education policy, but COVID-19 has given them a new urgency. Besides sending state and local governments a boatload of money as part of the next federal relief package, what do you think the Biden administration needs to be doing to help schools weather this crisis?

One thing we should think hard about is changing the school day and the school year, which is something that Richard Reeves and I have written about. In The New Contract with the Middle Class, we recommend aligning the school day with the working day and the school year with the working year. You may not be able to do that in all cases, but one of the things it would accomplish would be to solve a lot of the childcare problems affecting working parents.

It would also give children more time on task in school, with schools being able to choose whether to use the extra time for more extracurricular activities, supervised recreation, or time for learning. In the context of pandemic-related learning loss, or even the standard summer slide that especially affects less advantaged kids, having a longer school day and year makes a lot of sense. That would be expensive, but we argue that the federal government should provide financial incentives to states and local education agencies to do more on that front. We’d like to at least see a bigger debate on school schedules. They were conceived during an era when there was almost always one parent at home to meet kids at 3:00. That’s just obsolete given the kind of economy and society we have now.

Another proposal in your latest book is to use higher education subsidies as a way of attracting people to community service. 

We call it Scholarships for Service, and we propose that if you give a year of national service to your country, you would be owed two years of college in return, for free. We like the idea of combining rights with responsibilities by saying that college shouldn’t be an entitlement, but that it should be available to all in exchange for service.

Going back to the question of American identity, one way to rebuild a sense of patriotism and commitment to country is to ask people to serve the nation — either in a military or a civic capacity. It breaks down tribalism by race, by religion, by geography, by social class. The research from psychology shows that when you have contact with people from another group, and get to know them in an extended way, your view of that group changes quite dramatically. Stereotypes disappear. Racial prejudice goes down. That evidence has convinced me that something like national service would help a lot in breaking down some of the divisions we have in America right now.

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