Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Should Conservatives Be For In Education

Over at the Young Guns network (which--eww-- you guys are politicians, not gunfighters, and you aren't all that young),  Frederick Hess has asked and answered the question, "What should conservatives be for in education?"

It's a good question. Conservatives have let themselves get boxed into a corner on the new test-driven high-stakes privatization status quo in education. On the one hand, the Obama administration has implemented education policies that are like a conservatives Christmas list. On the other hand, lots of conservatives would not accept a bucket of water from the President if they were on fire. The battle for public education has exacerbated the rifts in conservatism in this country, the great divide between small government conservatives, corporate conservatives, and social conservatives. Consequently, conservatives have ended up (and not just in education) as the Big Voice of No.

So what does Hess (who generally hews to a line somewhere between the very-endagered traditional conservative species and corporate conservatism) think that conservatives should be in favor of in the education world? To what should conservatives say Yes?

A Limited Federal Role

Washington doesn’t run schools. All it can do is write rules for schools. Congress can do little more than enact laws that tell federal bureaucrats to write rules for states, which write rules for school districts, which then give directions to schools. Washington can therefore force states and districts to do things, but it cannot make them do those things well. And when it comes to complex enterprises like public schooling (with 50 million students and nealy three and a half million teachers), whether things like teacher evaluation and school “turnarounds” are done matters far less than how they are done. 

I think that's all correct. Conservatives should be for local control with a federal role limited to making local control easy to do.

Yes, some local control situations will result in Poor Choices. Liberals, conservatives, mugwumps, and snapdoodles all have the same problem with freedom-- the nagging certainty that somebody somewhere will use his freedom to make a Poor Choice. But here's the thing. If you're not free to make a Poor Choice, you are not free at all.

Conservatives are supposed to place a high value on personal responsibility. Well, to turn Stan Lee on his head, you can't have great responsibility without having great power. People cannot be responsible for things over which they have no control. Conservatives ought to be saying, "You are smart people. Figure it out," and not "Shut up and do as you're told." Obedience is not supposed to be a traditional conservative value.

So, Conservatives should be in favor of pushing power down to the front lines, to taking the federal foot off the local school board neck.

School Choice

Hess really thinks conservatives should support school choice. I think he's wrong. I used up a bunch of bandwidth explaining why, but the short answer is, school choice is a great imaginary system in the same way that communism is a great imaginary system. But in the real world, it doesn't do any of the things supporters imagine it's going to.

Improving Transparency

I agree that conservatives should support this in the same way that I agree conservatives should support eating and breathing.

Hess thinks we achieve transparency by continuing to release the results of a secret test that nobody is allowed to see, comment on, or offer corrections to. Nope, we should just believe that tests measure exactly what the testmakers say they measure. "You may not look behind the curtain. Just trust the voice of the Wizard of Tests." And there's certainly nothing transparent about the processes used to transform test results into "measures of school quality" such as VAM.

So if conservatives say yes to transparency, let's really say yes. The day after The Test, let's put a copy of the test on line. Let testmakers append an explanation of how the three questions about an armless pineapple determine a child's ability to decode context clues. VAMsters are required to release their special secret formulas to the whole world and then to justify them. And then when it turns out that all of that, from test through data crunch methods, is transparently crap, we can have a transparent conversation about how to do better.

Educational Research

Traditional conservatives have a history of intellectual heft and hardnosed devotion to true facts, so it makes sense for conservatives to support educational research. As long as it's good. Because the problem with educational research is that much of it is bunk, studies that rest on behavior of twenty volunteer sophomores at an ivy league school, or on deep squinty readings of other peoples' research.

But conservatives should be all about getting schools useful data without also telling them how they're supposed to use it.

Constructive Deregulation

Federal and state relationships with educational regulation has always been weird. Representatives who want to plug choice will tout it as a way to escape bad school regulations, but wouldn't another solution be to get rid of the regulations? It's like chaining your dog to the porch and then declaring you need a new dog, because the old one won't run around the yard with you. Just unchain the dog.

So by all means-- conservatives should be at the forefront of opposing and rolling back the giant tide of unfunded mandates that are a-swampin' our schools. (This, sadly, is not what Hess wants to do. Essentially, he advocates restructuring regulation so that it can be used to blackmail states into making choices he likes-- kind of like the current federal administration.)

Teachers and Unions

There are six million adults working in K-12 education in the U.S., and they have an intense, immediate, voting interest in schools. Equally important, teachers are routinely cited as the most reliable source of educational information by parents and voters. Conservatives should not treat
them as simply part of the problem with American education.

And I could quote the rest of this section, too. Clip this puppy and send it to every conservative politician in the country. Teachers are hugely affected by school-related garbage. Teachers really get the frustration of working under fed micromanagement. A great insight here-- teacher participation in unions is driven in large part by a need for protection from a broken system. Teachers are not the enemies of education; they are the front line troops.

Hess does not go so far as to call the union a good thing, but he does recognize that simply attacking it isn't helping anybody. He knows one of the best old anti-union tricks-- people feel far less need for a union when they trust their bosses and feel safe in their jobs.

The Agenda

Hess's conclusion is wrong, but reasoned well, albeit incompletely.

The conservative approach to education should follow the broader pattern of conservative policy thinking: enable the system to experiment with options; enable parents, students, and teachers to choose among those options; and let the failures fall away. 

Here he lets his corporate conservative side get the best of him. First, he argues that DC can create an environment in which businessmen and entrepreneurs can create jobs (which is a pleasant, if as yet unproven, premise), so it can do the same sort of marketty magic for schools. Even if we assume that's not paralleling apples and aardvarks, the market can cheerfully slough of failure; it only results in displaced business leaders and out-of-work laborers who, in a perfect world, will find new jobs. But "let the failures fall away" in education means sloughing off students, and that's just not acceptable.

What Hess Missed

I find Hess's work incomplete. I think there are some other values that traditional conservatives can, and should, also say "Yes" to when it comes to education:

Traditional Institutions

The traditional American public school system took on a task that was unheard of and achieved success that was previously unseen in human history. I know we all have to keep saying that public ed in this country is like a brakeless trackless train driven by a drunken blind elephant, but dang-- we educated more of our people than anyone, whether they were rich or not. We created social mobility. We became one of the first nations to ever rise to global leadership without actually conquering other countries. Conservatives are supposed to love our traditional institutions. When people attack them, conservatives are the ones who stand up with love for tradition. Let's apply some of that love to the American public school tradition of success.


Thomas Paine told a story in The Crisis about a man who, standing with his son, wished for peace in his own time. Paine takes him to task, arguing that we should take the hit now so that our children don't have to. Some conservatives get this, at least rhetorically (e.g. She Who Must Not Be Named's frequent point that we should not make children pay for adult political squabbles).

But when, for instance, we've got corporate interests salivating at the chance to make a buck from education, it should be conservatives saying, "You will not get a cent until you convince us that the interests of our children will be cared for." And no, that doesn't mean simply talking about parental empowerment, because that's just an invitation for the various interests to bury parents under multiple snow jobs.

Does it not bother you, conservatives, that somehow the liberals got custody of the women and children? Be the group that says, "We will take the hit if it's for the good of the next generation. And we expect every corporation interested in education to do the same."


When the Chinese (and a few decades ago, the Japanese) were buying up every chunk of America not tied down or locked in a bank vault (in which case they just buy the bank), it's conservatives who stand up for America and American interests.

So where are conservatives as a foreign country steadily buys up every chunk of American education? Why are conservatives not raising a fuss about how American education is becoming a fully-owned subsidiary of a British company?

Me? I'm not sure what you'd call me. I don't particularly believe in Big Government, but I think there are some things that can't get done any other way. Some days I feel like a Libertarian, but then I remember that they would let their friends die because if you're poor, that's on you. I think anybody who is successful owes a huge debt of gratitude to God (or the universe, if you prefer) and that you pay it back by taking care of the people around you.

So I don't believe that conservatives are automatically evil and/or stupid. I do believe that they could be a positive part of the battle for public education but for some (cough $$$$ cough) reason mostly choose not to be (course, that's true of politicians across the entire spectrum). This list is not a bad place to start.


  1. This is one of your more thoughtful and persuasive pieces on school choice and such - which is saying something, given how good 'normal' is for this blog. I agree with most of what you say, although I might like the guy you're quoting more in some parts. The section on 'transparency' was jumpin' shoutin' hallelujah spot on. If you weren't a godless northeasterner, you'd get an 'amen' for that part.

    The only section that produced shock and alarm was this: "Yes, some local control situations will result in Poor Choices. Liberals, conservatives, mugwumps, and snapdoodles all have the same problem with freedom-- the nagging certainty that somebody somewhere will use his freedom to make a Poor Choice. But here's the thing. If you're not free to make a Poor Choice, you are not free at all."

    Yes. Absolutely. There IS no pro-choice party between the two biggies - it's merely a matter of which things they most wish to control and who they're giving all of my money to after they make sure I can't waste it on my children. But the most potentially acceptable situations in which choice could perhaps be limited are those dramatically impacting those without choices. I can't believe I'm using slavery as an example (it's like bringing up Hitler), but it's the most glaring example - states' rights, personal property and such, yes. Owning someone else, boo - so we took away that choice. A century later, we took away more because the south was making such crappy choices, often against their own best interests.

    Smoking was felled not by arguments it's bad for YOU but because enough people were convinced smokers were killing the rest of us, and the children. I can't beat my wife or kids no matter what my religion or belief system, or marry a 12-year old no matter how in love we may be because of the legal lack of 'choice' of those impacted.

    You wanna talk drug legalization with a 'no ER visits' rider or eliminating sales taxes but building more toll roads, I'll at least buy the pretentious drinks when we meet at Applebee's. But letting local districts or states make horrible choices about education has not proven to be a great system, and the largest impact is on minors not involved in the decision-making.

    I'm all for whatever dying gasps of federalism have been rediscovered in the whole Common Core debate, but however noble most schools and teachers may be, independent of requirement, the number of schools still teaching Noah as World History and that ducks don't have an echo and that football trumps algebra, or just generally plodding through the motions of the rural 1900's good-ol'-boy system is simply unacceptable.

    I confess a lack of zeal for "so put the federal government in charge," but for all the value of 'local control' I think reality says we live in a global world (not just global economy - global everything) AND we've committed ourselves to feed, clothe, provide medical care, cable, phones, and self-esteem for every entity on the continent whether they can do anything useful or not. THAT kinda makes me want to do something on a larger scale rather than rely on Earl at the Snake Farm who doubles as bus driver and superintendent to decide what he thinks Boxer & Beulah oughter study.

    1. I get what you're saying, but the Common Core, or ANY national educational standards, will not solve those complex "we need to compete in a global economy" issues. And never will. If you really care to do something on a larger scale, then, I'm sorry to report, you simply must concern yourself with the even more complicated issues of poverty, outsourcing of American jobs, and systemic, Brought To You Courtesy Of The United States Government Paid For By The (fill in the blank) Lobby, income inequality, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1920's. We can spar forever over the particulars of any "ed reform" initiative...until THOSE issues are addressed, then it doesn't matter whether you're from Massachusetts or unified national curriculum or test is going to solve those real life,problems, despite how much some would say they they will. It's a scary, head in the sand solution to what really ails us.

    2. Janet - you have nailed it. More reality in fewer words, both blunt and graceful. Absolutely agree.

  2. I'd love to see the corollary piece, "What Should Liberals Be For in Education."

  3. My Tweet in response to Rick Hess' was, "How about KIDS?"

    The crickets are still chirping.... no response....

    #ColorMeSurprised LOL

  4. @ Media Diva...I think that's an excellent question. But I think the whole CC issue has created, as they say, some very strange bedfellows. I believe we're too loose with the categories "Conservative and Liberal," for starters. Life is more nuanced for most folks. As an educator, I have major concerns with virtually all aspects of the Common Core for more reasons than I can possibly list here, but the MOST fundamental is the simple fact that I believe profoundly in the concept of public education. "Public," meaning as a part of our Social Contract, available to all kiddos without undue influence from the hands of those who wield power because of their private fortunes, and "Education," which is a complex phenomenon that cannot, nor ever should be, reduced to how well a student performs on a bubble test. Never ever should anyone view the dynamic of education in a simple quantifiable manner. Never. I have had the privilege, for close to thirty years now, of having the best job in the world. It's always been messy, unpredictable, and you can never wrap it up in a bow at the end of a school year and say "Here's my finished product!" But the amazing moments, the frustrating moments, the sheer joy when an incredible classroom discussion explodes from a seemingly innocuous prompt. THAT is why I love teaching. When I started in this profession sooo many years ago, my wonderful mentors used to joke about the handful of teachers who, on Tuesday, May such and such, were ALWAYS on page 325 of their texts. I cannot, nor will I ever be, that teacher. I have no issue with reasonable standards, pacing in order to best cover my curriculum (that's what we have year long "maps" and specific lesson plans for), but the CC wants me to become a finely tuned delivery instrument rather than an educator...a real person who interacts with real kids. And that's neither the job I signed up for, nor the job I believe is in the best interest of my kids.