Opinion

Cunningham: Ed Reform Essayists Blame Failures on the Left While Claiming High Ground on Character for the Right. They’re Wrong on Both Counts

By Peter Cunningham | March 31, 2020

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Are there distinct conservative and liberal visions for public education, or are our differences more often exaggerated for political reasons? Are progressives the only ones who want more funding? Are conservatives the only ones who want choice? Don’t both sides have a love-hate relationship with accountability? Can’t we at least come together around the importance of civics?

These were the questions on my mind as I read a collection of essays gathered by the conservative think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute and published under the self-assured title How to Educate an American. The subtitle, in case you miss the point, is The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.

The authors are a who’s who of right-wing pundits and policy experts familiar to anyone who spends time reading conservative education blogs and opinion pieces, as I do regularly, both to challenge my progressive views and to sharpen my counterarguments.

The book rubs me wrong, mostly because it lays claim to values that are hardly unique to conservatives. It almost admits as much by opening with a preface from Tennessee Sen. and former U.S. education secretary Lamar Alexander praising legendary teachers union leader Albert Shanker for his description of the purpose of public education.

Shanker said, “The public school was created for the purpose of teaching immigrant children reading, writing and arithmetic and what it means to be an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents.”

Eighteen essays later, the editors sum up the effort with the following educational goals: informed citizenship, character, virtue, morality and a system that confers dignity, respect and opportunity to all. Not quite as punchy as Shanker’s version, and I would remind them that, over half a century ago, a progressive civil rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that the goal of education was “intelligence plus character.”

Or, consider the following from Randi Weingarten, Shanker’s successor as president of the American Federation of Teachers. In an address to teachers in July, she said, “Public education at its best is a ladder of opportunity, a path out of poverty, a place to develop the muscle of civic participation, where we both embrace America’s diversity and forge a common identity; indeed, the foundation of democracy.”

The point is, of course, that progressives care about character and citizenship as much as anyone. Moreover, we find today’s conservative politics deficient in both, since it enables the most deceitful, unethical president in American history. In fairness to these writers, several are avowed never-Trumpers, but their movement is far from innocent in this debacle.

That aside, the book proceeds from the view that conservatives overcompromised with progressives to achieve bipartisan support for education reform. To get back on track, they are now claiming the high ground on character while blaming progressives for most of what has gone wrong with reform.

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Of course, there are a few sheepish mea culpas about test-based accountability, but the main thrust of the book is to skewer progressives as “obsessed with social justice, racial disparities, the school-to-prison pipeline and other shibboleths of the contemporary left.”

Uh, yeah. Guilty as charged. School systems that ignore these issues and actively deny their impact do not deserve to describe what they offer as “education.” It’s better described as conditioning for life in a world that consistently and tragically fails to live up to America’s promise of equality, in which case the book should be titled How to Educate a Serf.

We hear from two former U.S. education secretaries. Rod Paige, who last taught in a K-12 classroom in 1964, went on to pass and implement No Child Left Behind, the most consequential education law in American history. His essay in the book argues that the missing element in school reform is that kids just don’t try hard enough. Bill Bennett, who has written a lot about morals and character, argues for more focus on content over skills.

We get the usual arguments built on random anecdotes and cherry-picked data and framed with rhetorical salvos like this one from Jonah Goldberg: “American students are increasingly being taught that they can learn nothing valuable from America’s past except the evil of our constitutional order and our most basic civic institutions.” Talk about A Nation at Risk.

Eliot Cohen introduces a term that I have to believe would make Chairman Mao smile: “patriotic history.” Charter school leader Ian Rowe links student achievement and low-income family structure to help his students see the value of delaying parenthood. While this may make for interesting social science, I worry that if it were embedded in policy, it could lead to public shaming of single parents whose kids struggle in school.

Kay Hymowitz blames middle-class parenting that celebrates individuality in the classroom. Heather Mac Donald continues her crusade defending oversuspension of black kids. Princeton-educated Ramesh Ponnuru argues against college for all even though no progressive I know argues for it.

Yuval Levin closes the book lamenting how conservatives put character formation on the back burner to please injustice-crazed liberals. He argues that conservatives believe education should help prop up societal institutions — family, church, community, civic — and accuses progressives of wanting to liberate individuals even if it further shreds these already-weakened social bonds.

Levin suggests that justice and order are inherently in friction and essentially tells us to accept our limitations as imperfect beings rather than disrupting the social order. Here again, I point him to King and his Letter From Birmingham Jail, in which he expresses disappointment with “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

I admire Fordham for undertaking this effort. Progressives should do the same thing, though I blanch at the thought of getting a political party that is torn between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden to agree on much of anything. On the other hand, broad-based agreement isn’t the real point of American education. If it were, we’d have national standards.

Peter Cunningham is founder and board chair of Education Post. He previously served as the assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the first term of the Obama administration.

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