Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Can Conservatives Reconcile With Teachers

Robert Pondiscio has an interesting piece out in National Affairs. Pondiscio and I sit on the opposite sides of many education issues, but I find him to be one of the more nuanced, thoughtful writers working his side of the street. 

This piece goes past some material on which we disagree, including his brief history of ed reform so far and much of what he has to say about teachers unions, but there are also pieces of this that are worth noting, and are, in fact, the kind of things I would expect to hear from actual conservatives (as opposed to the far right neo-faux-conservative-or-something culture warriors dominating so much of the choice conversation these days). If you don't read conservative writers about education (and you should--nobody's understanding of an issue is enhanced by only reading one side), you might have missed some of this. But I think it's well worth a read.

The meat of this piece is Pondiscio's argument that conservatives should not write of public education nor the teachers who work there. It would be a mistake, he argues, for conservatives to favor "school choice as the exclusive, or even primary, lever of reform." 

For starters, asking America's parents to abandon their support for local public schools in favor of entirely new educational paradigms is a heavy lift. Changing schools or opting to home school can be profoundly disruptive to family life and routines, as well as children's social lives. Transportation challenges are often insurmountable. If the majority of American families seem stubbornly attached to local public schools, it can't be explained away by a lack of parental engagement or credible alternatives; it's often the result of more practical considerations.

He also points out that, for several reasons, school choice is no bulwark against the forces of "progressive indoctrination" (God bless him, Pondiscio gets through this whole piece without using the word "woke")-- those "elite private schools" are actually more likely to be full of progressive policies.

But then there's this:

More fundamentally, though, arguments for choice as the main solution to failing public schools sidestep the shared interest Americans have in public education. Parents of school-age children undoubtedly have the most personal stake in the quality of schools available to them, but the claim that families should have control over "their" money elides the fact that the cost of education in the United States is socialized: We pay school taxes regardless of whether we send our children to public schools, or even whether we have children at all. Choice strategies like vouchers, education savings accounts, and other such mechanisms, therefore, put parents in control of our money.

It makes sense to put decision-making in the hands of those closest to schools and with the most at stake — namely their own children. But the shared cost implies a mutual interest, as well as a literal investment in every child. School choice can solve a school-based problem for a family, but it can't address the interest every American holds in the education of the next generation.

This makes so much more sense than the traditional "We don't need oversight because parents will vote with their feet and the free market will fix everything." Conservatives ought to be first in line to demand that somebody tell them how their tax dollars are being spent, and the attempt by some choicers to place choice above conservative values gets us the strange display of advocates saying, "We want new rules requiring more transparency from public schools, and we also want more money directed through vouchers into a system with no transparency or oversight at all."

The inescapable truth about education in America is that there is no foreseeable scenario under which traditional public schools will not educate the majority of the nation's future entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, soldiers, and citizens for generations to come. Conservatives are not wrong to take exception when activists seek to impose a progressive agenda on what is at heart a bedrock government service, but their response of promoting school choice as a conflict-avoidance strategy functionally cedes public education — and the vast majority of America's schoolchildren — to the left. If conservatives earnestly believe that public education is a hotbed of progressive indoctrination on social and political issues, it would be an act of self-immolation to surrender future generations to its influence.

Yes, this too. This is exactly what I would expect from an actual conservative (e.g. the many GOP members of my family). Another part of the modern choicer argument that doesn't make sense is "The building is on fire. There are hundreds of children trapped inside. Let's save five of them."

And then Pondiscio shifts to another interesting part of his argument--that conservatives could find allies for the rescuing of public schools among teachers themselves. Pondiscio points out that despite the continued characterization of the teacher task force as dominated by crazy lefties, the data suggests a distribution that makes the teacher pool "only slightly less conservative, and somewhat more moderate, than Americans at large."

Absolutely. I taught in GOP country, and I worked with plenty of conservatives. A hefty chunk of NEA and AFT members voted for Trump. When right-tilting teacher Daniel Buck told Rick Hess about how he and other conservative teachers "speak in whispers behind closed doors," I rolled my eyes so hard I reparted my hair. 

Teachers are, by the nature of the job, pragmatic. The staunchest principles, conservative or progressive, must yield to "what exactly am I going to do with this seven minute space in my day." Teachers are also, by the nature of the job, moderate in the sense that they have to moderate the pushes coming from a hundred different directions, from dozens of parents, to students themselves, to board members, to administrators, to whatever version of state and federal mandates filter down to the classroom, to whatever Great New Thing someone is trying to foist on them. 

As Pondiscio suggests, there is no real reason (and never has been) for teachers and conservatives to be enemies. Well, no reason but one--and that's conservatives insistence on picking a fight. We could go back further for fights over particular issues, but 1983's A Nation at Risk is arguably the point at which conservatives broadened their attack to simply, "Teachers are bad at their job." Conservatives have hammered away at that failure message and worse, rather than following it with "What could we do to help" have instead moved on to things like "Let's create a system to hunt down the bad ones and fire them" and "Let's just burn the whole system to the ground and replace it with something else." With No Child Left Behind, Democratic politicians (in their special hapless way) joined in the chorus. 

Plenty of rank and file members disagree with state and national choices of their union. But who else is standing up for them in the political arena.

Pondiscio offers some concrete examples of areas where conservatives and teachers could find common ground.

One is classroom safety and student behavior. Nothing makes it harder to do your job than out-of-control students in the classroom, and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Restorative justice poorly implemented, and micro-managing parents given free reign by the front office are part of a larger problem that is, by most survey accounts, a huge driver of teacher dissatisfaction with the job. It's always a balancing act, because racism-infused systems of discipline or a school culture that relies on students being forced to compliantly knuckle under is its own kind of problem. But teachers pretty universally want a safe and orderly classroom.

Pondiscio also suggests that "common-sense measured curricular policies" might be a point of agreement, and he points to issues like the schools that have dealt with inequitable use of advanced programs and tracks by doing away with them entirely. An unscientific survey of teachers I know shows a large support for fixing the problem by applying the programs equitably rather than simply blowing it up. Because gearing a class to forty-seven different ability levels is labor-intensive and taxing to implement.

Pondiscio also thinks that there could be consensus on teacher pay. I doubt it. I have yet to see a measure of teacher effectiveness that teachers can--or should--trust. Like many conservatives, Pondiscio points to DC's IMPACT system. Well. Creating a teacher evaluation system is hard-- really hard. Jason Kamras thought he really cracked the code with IMPACT in the DC schools, but given time and reflection, it seems to have established a culture in which rampant cheating and misbehavior were encouraged. Kamras was hired as a superintendent for Richmond Public Schools and he did not take IMPACT with him. IMPACT is a dud.

So I'm not sure that there's a chance for consensus on teacher pay, but I do have a suggestion-- those who want to see teacher effectiveness tied to pay should stop pretending that teacher opposition to bad evaluation systems is the same as opposition to any evaluation at all. They might also consider letting go of the whole pay-for-excellence approach to teacher evaluation and instead embrace the evaluation-as-a-path-for-improving-teacher-effectiveness approach instead, which would be far more fruitfull as a path to improving schools.

On the issues of trying to suppress the mentioning, discussion and reading about certain topics by various draconian law, Pondiscio hints, gently, that conservatives could start acting like conservatives and just not. Pondiscio points to a teacher code of conduct (the NEA has a nice one that some states adopted somewhere along the line) to prioritize teaching over preaching.

Finally, Pondiscio moves to the issue of trust. He suggests that teacher trust in parents declined, and he returns to a favorite point of his, which is that teachers are employed not as free agents, but as voices of the institution. On this we agree; the taxpayers pay us to do a job, and while "do a job" includes "exercise our professional judgment," it does not include "operate our personal crusade." Not that that's an easy or static line to draw, but I believe it exists.

Pondiscio also has advice for conservatives.

At the same time, conservatives would do well to cease fomenting parental discontent with public schools to advance prospects for school choice.

That is a pretty direct response to the work of Jay Greene ("Time for the school choice movement to embrace the culture wars") and Chris Rufo ("To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a place of universal school distrust") both of whom have clearly articulated exactly that tactic. Pondiscio points out that this may in fact drive more parents to progressive education solutions, and suggests that it's not helpful to burn down the institution where the majority of America's students get their education.

In the end, Pondiscio calls for what strikes me as a more traditional conservative approach to schools, and the conclusion to this piece is solid:

The opportunity exists, and would likely be acceptable to a critical mass of both public-school personnel and conservatives, to renew trust in public education by restoring it to its proper role as a collection of local institutions operating in the public interest to prepare American children for the challenges of citizenship and adult life. This is certainly a more modest role than the activist mentality embraced by some, but by no means all, of the nation's 3 million public-school teachers. And yet it serves the interests of both teachers and conservatives — not to mention Americans more broadly.

Making common cause on public education requires both sides to acknowledge what is plainly observable: that schools are conservative (in the best sense) institutions that serve progressive (in the best sense) ends. Our fiercest arguments occur when either is encroached upon: when schools stray too far into progressive activism, or when education fails to deliver on its promise of being an engine of fairness and social mobility. Reestablishing the proper balance between the two sides offers the critical first step toward restoring legitimacy and trust in this essential American institution.

It would be great to see this stance adopted by more folks in the conservative camp, but I'm not sure how many are really interested in Pondiscio's vision. The Goldwater-libertarian wing of ed reform retains its commitment to a vision of a country in which government doesn't have anything to do with public education at all, and the christianist nationalist wing isn't really interested in either choice or reform--just bending education to their particular brand of values. And folks way on the right are still posting things like this Kevin Portteus piece at American Greatness about the need to follow DeSantis in ripping "our schools" back from the crazy Marxists; he shares Pondiscio's understanding that most students will be educated in public schools--and that's why they must be taught the correct things and not the leftist indoctrination that all teachers are bent on delivering. 

Still, Pondiscio has been ahead of the curve before (he called the dissolution of the free market-social justice alliance in school reform), so maybe this piece will turn out to be prescient and not just an outlier in the conservative thinky tank-o-sphere. We'll see. 

No comments:

Post a Comment