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Three Conservative Principles for Education that Make Sense… Too Bad the GOP Has Abandoned Them

March 7, 2021

In January, conservative writers Frederick Hess and Michael McShane wrote an op ed piece for Newsweek that presented three conservative principles for education that resonated with me and could serve as the basis for bi-partisan legislation that would change the dialogue on schools. Given the writers’ ultimate goal of expanding school choice, I am not sure that is the direction they are hoping to head… but it IS a direction their principals COULD lead. The three principles they set forth are: 

  1. The Family is the Foundation
  2. Schools are Formative, Not Performative Institutions
  3. Conservatives Should be Confident Pluralists

The first principle– that families are the foundation of good schooling– is irrefutable. Children who succeed in school do so in large measure because their parents are engaged in their learning in and out of school. The writers accurately observe that “…the family in America is struggling (and) conservatives should fight to make child-rearing easier.” But the authors solution is “…to put parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing the best options for child care, preschool and K-12 education.” That “drivers seat” is wonderful for parents who AREN”T struggling. The parents who live in a decent home, have enough money to provide food for their children, and have the time necessary to give their children the attention they need, and the have access to the “options for child care, preschool and K-12 education”.  If conservatives want to fight to make child rearing easier, they could join their colleagues who want to provide affordable housing and put an end to food insecurity. If those two steps were taken would make child rearing easier for homeless parents and the 13.6 percent of households who experience food insecurity. 

The second principle about the nature of schooling was surprising. The writers believe, as I do and most progressive educators so, that schools are “…supposed to shape students into young adults who can reason, think and grow into responsible citizens.”   Given that desired outcome, it is a mystery why there is bipartisan support for standardized testing, which focuses on convergent thinking. The writers, though, are more concerned with the alleged indoctrination that occurs in schools. Instead of being concerned with the narrow curriculum that results from the focus on test scores and the obsession of schools to prepare students for work, they are concerned with the preponderance of teachers and professors who orient the zeal of young students “… to advance personal and ideological agendas.” If conservatives want to focus on the FORMATIVE aspects of schooling, they should be joining their colleagues who want to abandon SUMMATIVE testing and restore the focus on individual progress— FORMATIVE development– that is best measured and monitored by classroom teachers. 

The third principle, a focus on pluralism, is clearly aligned with the direction progressive educators would like to head. Indeed, this section of the essay could come from any advocate for pregressive schools:

There may be optimal strategies for teaching youngsters to read, but the vast majority of what happens in schools and classrooms can be done effectively in many different ways. We should allow parents and educators in varied situations and different communities to create the schools that best meet the needs of their children. Public dollars for education should equitably support a wide array of options.

That is the “pluralism” part. The “confident” part means taking a stand for what we think is right. Saying that the government won’t discriminate against a particular viewpoint doesn’t mean that we endorse it. We should still critique it and offer better alternatives. But a choice-centric, pluralist vision requires an environment that welcomes many different visions, even those we find wrong-headed.

This position is difficult to reconcile with the GOP’s thinking on phonics only, the rejection of the 1619 curriculum, the advocacy for the 1776 curriculum and their laments about teachers who want to share their “…personal and ideological agendas”. The “choice-centric, pluralist vision” the writers seek is not within the context of a pluralistic public education system. They want the opportunity to have, say, an opportunity for those who share common views to choose a school that aligns with their way of thinking as opposed to having a school that offers students a wide range of perspectives that they can learn from. 

The essay by Mr. Hess and Mr. McShane DOES reveal some common ground, though. Instead of focussing on the differences of opinion that emerge as one elaborates on the principles, MAYBE the political parties can engage attempting to build on their commonalities. 

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