It's time for Kentucky to elect the state board of education

Serving on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019 was one of the greatest honors of my professional life. But it was emotionally brutal work, especially when it came to a legally dubious end when Gov. Andy Beshear, on his first day in office, fulfilled a frequent campaign promise and fired me and all the other sitting board members for blatantly political reasons. 

Often during my tenure on KBE people asked me why state board members aren't elected by the people (rather than Kentucky's policy of appointment by the governor). I was aware that some states elect some or all of their state board members, but I thought that Kentucky had generally gotten it right in trying to shield the board (and the education system as a whole) from the more brutal elements of partisan politics.

But there we were in 2019, victims of the most ugly partisan powerplay ever inflicted on Kentucky education. In the years that  followed, I've become increasingly convinced that the direct election of state board members is the right way to go. It gives greater transparency to the work of the board and makes the education system more directly accountable to the public. 

The board is already political, but under the current system it functions as the political football of governors and the state legislature. Direct election of board members just makes clearer their political values and commitments.

This year Senator Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) has introduced a bill to make KBE an elected office. In a recent op-ed for Kentucky Today, I argued in favor of the proposal, listed as SB 8. You can read my full argument here.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer, organizations with which I am involved, or anyone affiliated.

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Educating for Wisdom

SteinerLate last year the Imaginative Conservative published my review of David M. Steiner's recent book, A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America's Schools

I argued that even though Steiner makes an excellent case for an education system based on classical purposes, I am skeptical that such an approach can work in a secular school environment. An excerpt:

There is much to admire in David M. Steiner’s prescription for American education. Most of his platform already constitutes the focus of America’s revival of K-12 classical education, a phenomenon that is almost entirely taking place in faith-based private schools and public charter schools.

Steiner, however, seems most interested in the implications of teaching for wisdom in traditional public schools, and believes his agenda is appropriate for the kind of diverse, multicultural constituents served by these secular institutions. “The elements [of my proposal] are meant to inclusive, acceptable to those whose politics or beliefs would otherwise divide them,” Steiner writes.

It is not clear, however, that this is the case. As much as we should hope that public education in America would embrace academic rigor and the ethical and aesthetic formation of children, the moral relativism of many of our citizens – and their children – make it hard to imagine a public school district adopting Steiner’s program. Steiner says that teaching phronesis is not the same thing as the amoral “values clarification” programs or bland, content-free “character education” programs of previous decades. But one can imagine the angry school board meetings where parents of various ideological camps demand to know “whose” virtues represent the standard to which students should be trained.

Read the full review here


Conservatives, Liberals, and the Purpose of Education

Conservatism

Yesterday I posted about my recent speech "A Conservative Reclamation of Education." At least part of that talk was inspired by my reading of Yoram Hazony's 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. I wrote about this book for the website Imaginative Conservative back in March 2023. An excerpt:

Of course, an appreciation for individual freedom is also a premier value to conservatives of the Anglo-American tradition, but for them personal liberty is situated into a larger framework of sometimes competing social obligations and purposes for government.

According to Dr. Hazony, “Many of us learned something like this view of the political world from our parents and grandparents, or from the Bible and religious community to which we belong,” though not likely from our education in secular, government-run schools (p. 101). But if civilizations, including those that value freedom and democracy, are to persist across the ages, children must learn to honor the past that gave rise to those values in the first place.

Honor is a concept that appears across all human societies, Dr. Hazony argues, and “We find that there can be no conservative society – by which I mean a society capable of conserving any teaching or text, institution or form of behavior, so that it persists from one generation to the next—unless it is permeated throughout by a concern and regard for honor” (p. 118).

This begins with helping children learn to honor their actual, biological parents, as the family is “the training ground for one’s participation in all other hierarchies, whether one has joined them by consent or not” (p. 131).

Read the full essay here.


The Conservative Reclamation of Education

NKYTPI was recently invited to speak to the Northern Kentucky Tea Party on Kentucky's proposed school choice constitutional amendment. My friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Davis, president of Commonwealth Educational Opportunities (where I serve as a policy advisor), gave an update on the current legislative landscape, and then I situated my comments within the larger context of education in Kentucky and America. I titled my remarks "The Conservative Reclamation of Education."

I tried to offer a definition of "conservative" based on the ideas of political philsopher Yoram Hazony, explain how conservatives and liberals see the purposes of education differently, and argue why conservatives must reclaim education institutions for their original purpose. I also tried to describe what a conservative reclamation of education looks like in practice and policy. Excerpt:

Conservatives and liberals have very different views of the purpose of education. For conservatives, education involves the passing down of a civilization from one generation to the next, handing on values, ideas, and institutions that our forefathers found valuable. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. It is the transfer of a way of life.”

Of course, conservatives do not hold that everything from the past is worth conserving, nor that our institutions are never in need of updating. Repairs to our institutions must be made both because there is inevitable decay in the best of institutions due to human nature and because some institutions have proven unworkable or unjust over time. But conservatives seek to make repairs to institutions, causing as little damage to traditions as possible. Education is also about forming young people to not just honor the past, but to lead changes in the future that restore our social institutions to the original and enduring values of our culture.

And more fundamentally, conservatives believe that the primary purpose of education is to form young people for lives of virtue. Conservatives have a realistic understanding of human nature. We are born as fallen creatures in need of formation. Conservatives also believe in an enduring moral order that can be accessed through a combination of faith and reason and we can learn to better conform our lives to that enduring order. Schools in their various forms exist to help parents in their vocation of forming their children in just such a way.

That’s the conservative vision of education.

You can watch the talk at the link here. Thomas goes first and I come up around the 16 minute mark.

Usual disclaimer: The views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, organizations with which I am involved, or anyone affiliated.


Here comes Kentucky's school choice constitutional amendment

Parents know bestUpdate, 1/27/2024: A second bill proposing a school choice constitutional amendment has been filed. House Bill 2, sponsored by Republican Majority Caucus Chair Suzanne Miles (R-Owensboro), accomplishes the same thing as the previously-proposed HB 208, with somewhat different language. Key members of House leadership, including Speaker David Osborne, are co-sponsors, indicating a strong chance that this bill will advance. Please continue to encourage lawmakers to work together, reconcile the language of the two bills, and unite to bring a strong constitutional amendment to voters this fall so that every family, regardless of income or zip code, might have the chance to choose a school that's the best fit for their child.

The biggest fight yet in Kentucky's long war for education freedom is about to get underway. House Bill 208 has been introduced in the Kentucky House of Representatives. This bill would place a question on the November 2024 general election ballot asking Kentucky voters to accept or reject a change to the state constitution allowing the legislature to adopt and fund school choice programs that do not use money already appropriated for public schools. 

A constitutional amendment is necessary because Kentucky judges, violating legal precedent from other states and even the United States Supreme Court, have repeatedly ruled that previous school choice laws adopted by the General Assembly are illegal under the state constitution.

The language of the proposed amendment changes Section 183 of the Kentucky constitution to read as follows (bold type represents new words):

To ensure that parents have options to guide the educational path of their children, the General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for and oversee a[an efficient] system of common schools throughout the State, and provide for a portion of the educational costs for parents of students outside of that common school system. Sections 184 to 189 of this Constitution shall not prevent, nor require a further referendum for, any provision for the educational costs of students outside of the system of common schools for parents of limited financial means, as determined by law, so long as no such funds are taken directly from the common school fund.

Like all bills, the wording of the amendment is likely to change somewhat as it works its way through the General Assembly, but this is the basic "ask" to Kentucky voters.

There are some important things to note about HB 208.

First, if approved by voters, this amendment will not automatically give Kentucky families new education options. It just prevents judges from using the state constitution to circumvent the legislature when lawmakers do, in the future, adopt new school choice legislation. The General Assembly can then introduce charter schools, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, or other ways to give low- and middle-income families the same kinds of education options enjoyed by the children of affluent families every day.

Second, it is a persistent falsehood, deliberately spread by the education estabishment, that school choice policies "drain money" from traditional public schools. This amendment makes clear that any future school choice program will be funded outside of the "system of common schools," the constitution's archaic term for "public school system." School choice in Kentucky, following this amendment, will actually increase the total amount of funding for education in the Commonwealth.

Finally, HB 208 must be approved by the Kentucky General Assembly before it goes to the voters. In the past, Kentucky lawmakers have been highly reluctant to pass robust school choice laws, even though Kentucky is completely surrounded by states that have embraced school choice and are experiencing great results. This is a testament to the incredible political power of the education establishment, which will lobby ferociously to keep HB 208 from moving forward. 

Call to action: Kentuckians need to press their representatives in the House hard, first to co-sponsor this bill (as of this writing it already has 18 [29 as of 1/24/2024] sponsors), and then to move the bill from the Committee on Committees into the appropriate House committee for further consideration, and then on to the full floor for a vote. A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote of both chambers, so HB 208 needs 60 votes in the House. 

An important point to tell your lawmaker: they are not technically voting for school choice if they support HB 208. They are voting to give Kentucky voters the chance to decide whether Kentucky should be allowed to consider school choice. There will be enormous amounts of work to do later to convince lawmakers to follow up with strong school choice legislation in a future session. For now, let's just focus on moving this amendment forward so more ordinary Kentucky families can choose the school that best fits the needs of their children. See more information about how school choice works in the links below.

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, other organizations with which I am associated, or anyone affiliated.

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On Differentiation, Direct Instruction, and More: A Decade Later

FOcus
Recently I was contacted by a teacher who had come across a now-decade old blog post I wrote about education author Mike Schmoker and his (hostile) take on differentiated instruction. I argued that, as much as I admired Schmoker's work, I thought he was making a bit of a straw man argument against differentiation. This teacher was curious if I had any more recent thoughts on this topic because his school had recently been through a long spell of exploring "personalized learning" and I got the impression that they weren't entirely satisfied because now they were studying Schmoker's (still classic) book Focus, which argues against bells and whistles and for a much more standardized (perhaps traditional) approach to instruction. Here's my response: 

Great to hear from you and I'm glad folks in the trenches are continuing to wrestle with these important issues.
 
I must admit that I have not followed Schmoker's work in recent years, or Tomlinson's for that matter. My gut instinct is still that their ideas really are in creative tension rather than opposition, but to the extent that they do represent different emphases, my money is still very much with Schmoker
 
And I'm more confident than I was in 2012 that you can't do it all. Schools must prioritize their "focus" and choose what to emphasize. I'm increasingly convinced that the focus for most schools needs to be on creating a strong, coherent, content-rich curriculum and then ensuring fidelity to that curriculum through administrative oversight and support. Then there must be a relentless focus on effective instruction to deliver that curriculum. Only when those pieces are in place can schools begin to meaningfully work on assessment (which they should). 
 
However, I'm much less confident than I used to be that schools can formatively assess short-term student learning in ways that can validly inform a lot of personalized instructional follow up. My thinking on this has been strongly informed by the work of England-based educator David Didau and his book What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (See my review of his book here). Within that review, also see my references to books by Daisy Christodoulou and E.D. Hirsch, which seem to speak strongly to this topic of what should be our highest education priorities.
Bottom line: I think most talk of differentiation (and especially personalized learning) is a distraction for many schools, which have far greater fish to fry in terms of curriculum and instruction. Differentiation has never been practical for most classrooms and may not even be that beneficial. Education, like all human endeavors, involves limited resources of time, talent, and materials. We need to invest in the strategies that have the biggest impact for the vast majority of students. 
 
In most cases, that's likely to involve direct instruction of rich content by content-expert teachers.
 
Then I shared with him a couple of Twitter/X threads I have posted in recent months that even better summarize my current thinking, which I've reproduced below. The first is from August 18:
 
Earlier this week I quoted an article arguing that classrooms should feature more “lecture” and less “facilitation” on the part of teachers. The article (or the quote at least) provoked a big reaction, both positive and negative. It should go without saying that lecture, done poorly, is ineffective, and that more “student-centered” activities can sometimes work quite well for some students. But a general shift in emphasis toward more teacher-led classrooms is in order for two reasons.
 
The first is philosophical: much of the vacuous mess that makes up “contemporary” instructional strategies is the dross of assumptions about learning, the purpose of education, and of human nature left by Dewey & the “Progressives,” assumptions that can and should be challenged. The second is pragmatic: we should give primacy to instructional strategies that work best for most students when deployed by most teachers in most classrooms. That’s going to often be teacher-led learning centered on a rich, rigorous, established curriculum.
 
Of course there is room and need for variety in terms what this looks like in practice. But we need to throw out many if not most of the assumptions in which most teachers of the last generation have been trained.
 
Dear teacher, you are NOT a “guide on the side.” You better be a content expert ready to impart a comprehensive body of knowledge, skills, and cultural values that is not a personal assemblage of your favorite subjects and ideologies. You are a public servant forming children according to the knowledge and virtues that represent your state and local community’s vision for a life of adult flourishing. That requires you to be firmly in charge of the learning in your classroom. And yes, often it will mean a well-crafted lecture, demonstration, or modeled example is the centerpiece of most lessons. Don’t be shy about that and don’t ever apologize. Be the “sage on the stage.” Your students deserve it.
 
A few days later, I followed up with this thread:
 
More on why we need teachers to intentionally think of themselves as “sage” rather than “guide.” Relevant question: when *should* the teacher be a guide? 
 
There’s definitely a point in the learning journey when the sage becomes a guide. This happens at the highest levels of student learning after the mastery of a large body of knowledge and the practice of skill under the careful tutelage of the master. Examples: when I work w/ a doc student on their dissertation, when a HS composition teacher edits a student thesis, when a teacher steps aside so that well-read students can do Socratic seminar, and when the master electrician watches his apprentice wire a house for real people.
 
The problem is that we’ve been led to believe these are normal, everyday learning experiences that would apply to all students of all developmental levels rather than the culmination of months and years of didactic learning from the direct instruction of an expert. 
 
The ancients understood this when they organized the Trivium - the ascending ladder of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. First comes content knowledge, then understanding and skill for organizing that knowledge, and finally the skill to express it to others, including in novel ways. Contemporary education lost sight of this learning structure and pressures students and teachers to skip directly to application and synthesis without the hard work of mastering the underlying basics, or to jump around willy-nilly as if novice-level students were already masters. Therefore a thoughtful shift toward a more traditional (pre-Progressive) understanding of knowledge, learning, human nature, and the purpose of education itself, seems in order.
 
Looking at what I wrote 11 years ago compared with my more recent thoughts, I can see how my own understanding about high-quality instruction has matured while still revolving around a core set of principles, the chief of which is that schools can't do it all, and must prioritize their efforts on tried and true strategies that work for most students. It's a bit discouraging to think of how little progress most schools have made in this regard, but when I also consider the (re)emergence of classical education over this same time period and the recent achievements of many reformers around content knowledge, curriculum improvement, and science-based reading instruction, I'm encouraged for the future. 
 
Somebody email me in another 10 years and let's see where we're at.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Aqueducts, Improvement Science, and Leadership

Aqueduct2
In February this year I became director of the Educational Leadership doctoral program at Western Kentucky University, which forms practicing and aspiring leaders in K-12 schools, higher education, and related fields. One of my immediate goals was to redesign the WKU Ed.D. around the principles and processes of "Improvement Science." 

As a member of the Carnegie Project on the Educational Doctorate (CPED), WKU had been piloting a highly applied capstone project called the "dissertation-in-practice" based on continuous improvement protocols that have been heavily promoted by the Carnegie Foundation. Like other CPED institutions, WKU was interested in distinguishing its EdD as a practitioner doctorate, as rigorous as a traditional PhD but designed for a different purpose: forming "scholar-practitioners" who will continue to serve as leaders in educational organizations, equipped with a set of research skills to facilitate more rapid organizational improvement. 

With the incoming Fall 2023 cohort, we have made "Improvement Science Leadership" the theme of the entire program going forward. With the tools of improvement science, WKU doctoral students will identify a problem of practice within their organization and deploy a set of research-based interventions to address it.

Much of the language of improvement science is rooted in the management theories and change processes championed by W. Edwards Deming and other 20th century figures associated with business and manufacturing industries. In recent decades, these processes have been increasingly applied to health care and education organizations as well. Perhaps the best known feature of improvement science is the PDSA (plan-do-study-act) cycle: the practitioner seeks to define and understand a practice problem and hypothesize an improvement strategy (plan), deploy the intervention (do), analyze the results (study), and then plan a new cycle of interventions based on lessons learned (act).

This semester I am teaching a brand new course to this incoming doctoral cohort called Introduction to Improvement Science. The "cover photo" I chose for this course features the impressive Pont du Gard aqueduct in Southern France. Many of the images in the slides for the first class session also include pictures of Pont du Gard and details of similar Roman aqueducts.

The choice of the aqueduct as the guiding image for a course on improvement science is not (just) a reflection of my love for things old and beautiful. While improvement science is often presented as a product of 20th century management ideas and techniques, the principles and practices of improvement are not new and over emphasizing the social science aspects of leadership and organizational change often reflects the prejudice of "presentism," which, among other things, fails to give our ancestors credit for their immense knowledge, skill, and wisdom.

The ancient Romans and their subjects faced a significant problem of practice: how to get sufficient water supplies to their growing population centers in a hot Mediterranean climate. Their "intervention" was genius: use the natural force of gravity to channel water from the nearby mountains to where it was needed. Pont du Gard may have carried as much as 8.8 million gallons of water per day along a route of more than 30 miles. That this structure was not just useful but also beautiful should be noted, because such things should go together.

Also note, however, that this feat of engineering-art didn't just happen by accident, but through leadership, which is also the focus of this EdD program. And here we speak not just of the emperor who likely gave the initial order for the construction of Pont du Gard (Caesar Augustus, ruler of the realm, whose name you might recognize from the second chapter of St. Luke's gospel), but his son-in-law Marcus Vipsannius Agrippa, who oversaw the work a generation later, and the countless, unnamed architects, engineers, foremen, and masons who designed and built the structure, compelling excellence from themselves and others, through a process we would likely recognize today as "plan-do-study-act" (PDSA).

No work of collective human excellence is achieved without leadership, and here I speak not of the pseudo-social science of modern "leadership" theory, but the classical understanding that leaders are those who articulate a grand vision of excellence and, through their virtuous example, compel a desire for excellence in others. 

My aspiration for the WKU Ed.D. program is that it serve to form scholar-practitioners who can lead similar works of excellence in the organizations they serve. Here my thinking is influenced, in part, by Yuval Levin's 2020 book, A Time to Build.

Levin argues that faith in the institutions of modern society has declined because institutions (family, schools, government, the professions, once-respected industries) have abandoned their formative function. Human beings do not naturally seek excellence, and therefore we need institutions - including and especially education and professional training - to form us accordingly. Levin calls on institutions to reclaim that formative purpose.

Professional doctoral programs - especially those who seek to form leaders - should be the first to embrace this purpose. Therefore, my vision and mission for the WKU Ed.D. program is as follows:

  • Our vision: The WKU Educational Leadership doctoral program aspires to improve education outcomes in Kentucky and beyond.
  • Our mission: To achieve our vision, the WKU Educational Leadership doctoral program will form scholar practitioners who compel excellence in educational organizations by developing virtue and skill in the art and science of improvement.

Understood this way, the components of the WKU Ed.D. program might also roughly parallel the classic Greek ideals of the "three transcendentals:" the True (improving the human condition in discernible ways - improvement "science"), the Good (leadership that compels improvement toward the ideal of excellence), and the Beautiful (an aesthetic dimension of this process that creates experiences that are awe-inspiring and pleasing to our perceptions).

There is still much to work out in my thinking about all this, but the above represents a tentative first attempt to articulate my own goals for the WKU Ed.D. program. I look forward to working with stakeholders to further refine our mission according to this classic understanding of leadership using the tools of organizational improvement.

May the image of Pont du Gard remind us of all the useful, beautiful, excellent things leaders can do.

*Image above by Dimitris Kilymis


CRT prevents real progress on closing achievement gaps

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on April 26, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

How widespread is critical race theory in America’s K-12 classrooms? In an essay for National Review, teacher Daniel Buck argues that while most teachers don’t personally espouse the extreme racialist views of critical theory, the universities where they are trained certainly do. It’s inevitable that the pernicious aspects of critical race theory (CRT), which assume that every difference of student outcome is explained by bias and oppression, will influence what gets taught to our children, and how.

              Daniel’s essay prompted a vigorous Twitter exchange among prominent education policy wonks. Thomas B. Fordham President Michael Petrilli called for more research on how widespread CRT really is in K-12 schools, while American Enterprise Institute education scholar Max Eden insists that states should ban the use of CRT in schools outright because of its sweeping and totalizing claims.

              I share Daniel Buck’s feeling that most ordinary classroom teachers are not antifa sympathizers or devotees of Marxist pedagogy. I also agree with him that these views are much more common in university settings, including education programs. But the core assumptions of CRT have come to dominate the professional discourse and thinking about equity issues at both university and K-12 levels, so much so that individual educators are increasingly afraid to push back against those assumptions and just silently endure CRT indoctrination.

This is bound to eventually have an effect on classroom practice and actually makes it harder to address real equity issues in our schools. When you assume, as CRT does, that all outcomes are the result of bias and oppression, you silence discussion of all other explanations and solutions.

For example, research from education advocacy group TNTP, billed as “The Opportunity Myth,” shows that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds regularly receive classroom assignments that are below grade-level expectations. In fact, the Opportunity Myth study found that in 4 out of ten classrooms with a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment (compared to only 12% of majority white classrooms that never received a grade-level assignment).

Does racism play a role in this abysmal display of low expectations? Perhaps. The biased belief that students of color are incapable of completing rigorous assignments almost certainly does. But a fair number of minority teachers and administrators would also have to be guilty of this assumption.

Is white privilege at work in this pattern? Perhaps – to the extent that white students are getting the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of high achievement and therefore teachers are challenging them with more rigorous work. So racial prejudice may indeed make a difference in student outcomes. But what do we do about that? And does that explain everything about these differences?

CRT advocates would say we have to expose these implicit biases in educators, shame white teachers for having these views (presumably the minority teachers with low expectations for students of color also hold those views because of some mysterious pattern of white supremacy), and insist that students receive more “culturally responsive” instruction, like the CRT-approved but historically inaccurate pablum of the 1619 project, or ethno-mathematics, since concepts like finding the right answer in a math class is an alleged reflection of “whiteness.”

Instead of imposing ineffective, CRT-inspired equity trainings or ridiculous, ideologically-driven curriculum on students, what if we just showed educators the research on low expectations and then trained them in understanding what high-quality, rigorous instructional resources look like and how to use them? For all students. From my own personal experience when I’ve confronted teachers and administrators with the Opportunity Myth research, they immediately recognize the pattern from their own schools, especially the tendency to use the past performance of struggling students to justify giving them low-quality assignments. And they immediately want to help their schools do better.

Similarly, we know that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are likely to be taught by the least experienced, weakest teachers, a pattern that almost certainly contributes to achievement gaps. Again, is it more valuable to train teachers in implicit bias, or to simply insist that every student be taught by a skilled teacher using effective instructional methods?

Of course, there are also other factors that contribute to disparities in student learning outcomes. As black educator Ian Rowe regularly points out, the disintegration of the family has an untold impact on student achievement and educators are committing malpractice for failing to champion traditional family structures as a means of improving student performance in all racial groups. But these are the kinds of important education variables that CRT forbids us to discuss.

The gaps in student learning based on race are real and troubling. And racial bias on the part of the educators may play a role. But indoctrinating teachers and students in critical race theory won’t help, mainly because CRT advocates are far more interested in promoting their extremist, racialist ideology than actually solving problems.

Fortunately, most teachers and school administrators really do care about their students and doing better by them. They know achievement gaps exist and that closing them is at least partly within their control, even – and especially - if they reject the totalizing assumptions of critical race theory. And they know that becoming more effective in their teaching practice is the most powerful way to get there.


Living Not By Lies in Education

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on March 19, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

Rod Dreher’s latest book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of a “soft totalitarianism” slowly creeping into American culture. Unbeknownst to many, K-12 schools are actually the front lines for this effort to impose a radical ideology on society by making young people cheerleaders for the totalizing worldview of critical theory, or at least to make them too afraid to speak up against it.

              Dreher channels the famous Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in calling everyone, but especially people of faith, to prepare for this coming totalitarianism and resist it by committing to “live not by lies.” While Dreher discusses the K-12 education system only indirectly, teachers are well aware of how “woke” ideology is transforming what can be taught and even spoken in classrooms. Now is the time for the lessons of Live Not by Lies to be explored in the context of K-12 teaching and learning.

              I don’t intend this article to be a full review of Live Not by Lies. Others have done that already (I recommend this review by classical educators Ty Fischer and Joe Gerber). Rather, after briefly summarizing Dreher’s thesis, I’d like to offer some reflections on what it might mean to “live not by lies” as an educator, or as a student or parent of a student in K-12 schools.

              For those unfamiliar with Rod Dreher’s writing, their first reaction to his suggestion that totalitarianism is right around the corner is probably to scoff and declare, “That can’t happen here.” Anticipating this reaction, Dreher draws from numerous interviews with survivors of former Soviet bloc countries who see what is happening in American and recognize a pattern. They see how every apparatus of government, culture, and commerce is slowly being adapted to serve a specific ideology: a pseudo-religious political progressivism that demands total allegiance or, at least, silent acquiescence.

              This ideology is driven largely by critical theory, a set of assumptions about society and human persons that suggests one’s identity group defines their power status. Critical theory rejects objective truth and claims there are only subjective, personal “narratives,” all of which serve to reinforce one’s role as victim or oppressor. Critical theory is totalizing, trampling over moral ambiguities and declaring each person good or bad, every idea as noble or evil, depending on the extent to which the idea conforms with critical theory’s own assumptions.

              While these ideas were once known only among the far fringes of the political Left, they have become the operative philosophy of most American universities, and Dreher argues that this pseudo religion now occupies center stage in our political debates. Corporate America has embraced progressive ideology as well, with big technology companies routinely censoring users whose opinions deviate from approved points of view.

              It is in this way that Dreher says the coming totalitarianism is “soft.” Unlike the “hard” tyranny of the former Soviet or Nazi regimes, it is unlikely that dissenters in America and Europe will be hauled away to gulags any time soon. But they won’t have to be, as the combination of state, media, and social pressure will drive anyone who questions the new orthodoxy to silence and submission. Fear of losing one’s job, being punished at school, being pilloried in the media, or denied access to both social and fiscal capital (as is already the case in China) will ensure that resistance is futile.

              Dreher is writing primarily to a Christian audience. People with traditional religious beliefs are likely to be key targets of soft totalitarianism because their commitment to the idea of objective truth, allegiance to a power bigger than the state, and heterodox views on marriage, the family, gender, and a host of other topics puts them outside of the “progressive” mainstream.

              But Dreher’s warning is relevant for anyone who cares about intellectual freedom, open and honest debate, and respect for diverse opinions – all key values of what was once considered a classical “liberal” worldview. And Live Not by Lies is an especially important book for those who care about K-12 education and its role in shaping culture. Anyone who is in even casually observing primary and secondary education can see the growing presence of soft totalitarianism, often dressed in the noble-sounding garb of “anti-racism” and the war over what gets taught – and how – in our schools.

              Let me be clear: there are long-standing racial disparities in education that should be of grave concern to everyone. Achievement gaps and lopsided student discipline data based on race are genuine problems that deserve serious, collective investigation. The lack of diversity among the teaching force probably aggravates these problems in ways we’ve not yet begun to understand.

              But as I wrote last year for the Imaginative Conservative, the presence of these inequalities does not mean they are explained wholly by racism and oppression. Certainly, bias on the part of educators or within the society at large may be a contributing factor. But only an ideological fanatic could conclude that eliminating racism (a worthy but entirely unrealistic goal) would solve all of these problems.

              Sadly, though, that is exactly how so much of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” activities carried out in schools are being conducted. “Anti-racism” training and discussion groups are being mandated for school faculty, often using books like Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist as manuals. These books and associated training sessions promote the idea that victim and oppressor status is written into the skin color of every person, including children themselves. The great creed of the American civil rights movement, that no person should be judged or limited by their skin color, has been completely replaced with its exact opposite, and attached to a political agenda that demands not equality of opportunity, but an actual equality of outcomes that requires a revolutionary reordering of society and a rejection of the core principles of Western Civilization.

              Teachers who would object to these programs face the serious risk of being labeled a racist themselves. But this is precisely where Live Not by Lies serves as an inspiring prescription as well as diagnosis of what is happening in American schools.

              Dreher tells the stories of numerous dissidents who survived communist totalitarianism by refusing to give inner or outer submission to the lies their overlords insisted everyone live by (the title, Live Not by Lies, is taken from a 1974 letter by Solzhenitsyn). This was dangerous business, of course, as resisting could lead to imprisonment, or worse. But sometimes even small, prudent acts of resistance could serve as the inspiration to others.

              Teachers and students should refuse to take part in any “diversity,” “equity,” or “anti-racist” initiatives that treat the assumptions of critical theory as truth, rather than simply as one perspective on a complex set of issues. When they are able, educators, parents, and students should challenge these initiatives openly, exposing their underlying ideology for the extremist, anti-American, anti-liberal agenda that it is. School communities should be made aware of the presence of these programs and demand their school boards provide fair and reasonable oversight.

              At the same time, educators must model strategies for taking racial inequalities in education seriously. We can ask ourselves hard, demanding questions about our own internal biases and practices that may have a disparate effect on different groups of students without succumbing to the totalizing assumptions of critical theory. We stand to actually generate far more effective long-term strategies for addressing disparities in this way.

              Educators, parents, and students must also refuse to live by the curricular lies that are increasingly being told within our schools. Leftist, critical-theory propaganda like the 1619 Project are problematic, not because they tell the “other side” or “rest” of the story of American history, but because they promote outright falsehoods about the American people and their founding. It is simply not true, as the 1619 Project and other efforts at revisionist history hold, that the preservation of slavery was the central reason for the American Revolution. It is ridiculous, but also false, to suggest that math and science – that even finding the correct answer - reflects “white supremacy.” And yet these are the kinds of lies that are being told more and more often in K-12 schools. Again, educators must expose and resist these ideologically-driven curricular ideas and programs whenever they arise. We must insist that the way we teach history, in particular, is both factually accurate and refuse the false dichotomy that understanding and appreciating the past precludes being both critical and patriotic.

Finally, educators, parents, and students must insist their K-12 schools be centers of intellectual diversity and freedom. Universities, which used to play this role, have already by and large submitted to the soft totalitarianism of woke ideology. K-12 schools, which are supposed to be locally controlled and reflect the values of the communities they serve, may be the last bastion for defending the classical liberal ideas of free speech and freedom of conscience.

Refusing to live by lies in today’s education environment is no small thing. For teachers and administrators, it might even involve risking one’s career, and certainly brings the risk of being ostracized and mistreated by colleagues, supervisors, and sometimes even students and parents. But this risk illustrates exactly why all of us who value open debate and intellectual diversity must commit to challenging every policy, program, and ideology that would impose any kind of soft totalitarianism in our schools. Teachers, students, and parents who object to what is happening in schools need to know they are not alone.

America’s Founders understood that democracy – not understood necessarily as majority rule but as a system that limits the power of central authorities over every group regardless of its number – was dependent upon a well-educated citizenry. That democracy is under threat like never before, and K-12 schools are increasingly its battleground. Let’s make sure they remain places that are safe for dissent and intellectual debate.


The cultural contradictions of American education

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on February 19, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

In the Winter 2021 issue of National Affairs, Manhattan Institute fellow Kay S. Hymowitz explores what she calls “The Cultural Contradictions of American Education.” This contradiction is driven largely by middle class parents who have a fixation both on celebrating children’s individuality and on training students with the values, skills, and dispositions they need for employability and effective socialization.

Hymowitz accurately identifies these two goals as being in paradoxical tension. You cannot easily affirm a child’s right to “be themselves” and simultaneously tell them to curb their impulses for the benefit for others. Thus, we have an American education system in a perpetual identity crisis. Parents, teachers, and students are unclear as to the core purpose of education, and students from working class families wind up being the most perpetually underserved.

  Hymowitz, who has written extensively about the impact of changes in family life, traces the origins of this contradiction back to uniquely American patterns of childrearing, starting in infancy. Citing various ethnographic studies, she contrasts parenting techniques in France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan, and China, all of which emphasize training the child’s naturally selfish impulses toward manners, structures, routines, and social norms, with the middle-class American tendency to overemphasize each child’s uniqueness. The impact on schools is evident even to a casual observer.

“American education institutions—led by professionals, many of who are parents themselves—inescapably reflect those same cultural norms,” Hymowitz writes. “One example is the dogma that classrooms need low teacher-student ratios,” perceived as allowing for richer, individualized student-teacher interaction. Besides a wealth of research data suggesting that smaller classes do not actually yield substantive and lasting improvements in student learning, Hymowitz notes how this American attitude contrasts dramatically with those of educators in other cultures who worry that small classes do not give children adequate opportunities to learn to function in large groups.

The middle-class American fixation on the individuality of the child doesn’t just differ from other cultures, though. It also often differs from those of working-class Americans who may practice a much more traditional model of authoritative parenting and expect schools to train up their kids to work hard even when life isn’t entertaining, learn a well-established body of knowledge, and follow the rules.

But American education, from the so-called progressive ideas of John Dewey forward, has clearly been arranged to reflect middle class cultural values. Hymowitz points out how a plethora of educational theories and practices have all but defined our collective philosophy of schooling in this country, from the “whole language” (now repackaged as “balanced literacy”) approaches to reading instruction that suggest students can just absorb the rules of language through exposure to books, to the most-viewed TED Talk of all time, the late Sir Ken Robinson’s diatribe against schools’ tendency to “kill kids’ creativity,” to our current preoccupation with various forms of technology-driven personalized learning.

Meanwhile, says Hymowitz, parents – and many educators – also want schools to “instill in every study a set of distinctly middle-class values—accountability, diligence, civility, and self-control—that are often in direct tension with students’ autonomy and individuality.” Not only does the contradiction mean that many students are often not receiving the content-rich, teacher-directed instruction they need to be successful, but schools also typically approach the development of virtue in their students as an afterthought or with a haphazard mishmash of “soft skills” training.

None of this works out particularly well for the children of working-class families, Hymowitz argues. A century of what she calls “self-centered pedagogies” has failed to put a dent in income-based achievement gaps. Meanwhile, educators, college admissions counselors, and employers routinely lament how unprepared even upper-income students are for life after high school.

Hymowitz notes that all of this further aggravates the social fragmentation of American society. Affluent families supplement what is lacking in the curriculum or character education offered in their child’s school through summer camps, museum trips, and other activities that provide content knowledge in history, science, and the arts that many schools no longer teach in early grades. Students from lower-income families typically lack these luxuries at home and need to get more of it from school. Likewise, these students often benefit little from the occasional dose of middle-class “soft skills:”

Sure, [working-class] parents want their children to have good manners and to listen to their teachers. But in all likelihood those lessons have been delivered bluntly, with a hint of “life-is-tough” severity, and without concern for the child’s self-expression. Adults have likely not prodded those children to “use their words” or express their feelings, or asked them questions about what they thought about a story or what they noticed during a walk to the grocery store. They’re lacking the “cultural literacy” – to recall E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s invaluable term—to thrive in the contemporary progress classroom.

              This cultural contradiction in American education – and its devastating consequences for less-privileged students – is familiar to me as a former teacher and principal and in my current role as a professor of education administration working in and around K-12 schools.

              I believe that most teachers and principals greatly desire to help their students grow into effective citizens and contributing members of society, but I know of few traditional public schools that have an intentional, self-aware sense of mission about growing students in virtue. Formal character education, where it exists, takes a backseat to vocational preparation – making sure students turn out to be good workers and better test takers – and usually takes the form of some vaguely-defined leadership skill development.

              Social studies, science, and arts education in the early grades have nearly vanished while schools over-emphasize math and ill-conceived “reading comprehension” strategies. Education professors and school administrators make teachers feel embarrassed for using direct instruction methods, even though research suggests whole-class, teacher-led learning consistently works better for students from less affluent backgrounds. Deweyan progressivism, while perhaps not as universally dominant as many conservatives sometimes fear or suggest, nevertheless shapes the classroom experience in far too many schools.

              Hymowitz’s essay calls to mind sociologist Charles Murray’s 2012 book-length study, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Comparing demographic changes between working-class and affluent white families over a half-century, Murray found upper-class whites trumpeting the kind of me-first hyper-individualism that Hymowitz describes so vividly in America’s schools, while still insisting their own children learn discipline, commitment, and other essential social skills and virtues. Meanwhile, working class families have nearly disintegrated thanks to male under-employment, divorce and delayed marriage, drug abuse, and out-of-wedlock child birth. Elite whites refuse to acknowledge that they themselves still tend to live according to traditional values while insisting that judging others is the worst possible social sin and the goal of life is to just be happy. Their kids then mostly do okay, while working-class kids pay a terrible price.

              Our schools reflect the same contradiction, promoting content-light, student-centered pedagogies in spite of which affluent kids still manage to succeed. These same schools then fail to acknowledge that virtue is the ultimate goal of the entire educational endeavor – virtue that ultimately puts others before self, virtue that seeks to form and conform our lives to what Aristotle called the true, the good, and the beautiful.

              I believe it is time for American education to confront and seek to resolve its cultural contradiction. First, local boards of education, school councils, parents, teachers, and administrators should intentionally and self-consciously champion a clear purpose for their schools: that is, forming students in virtue, to which all other purposes, from career preparation to mastery of academic knowledge and skill, is ultimately directed.

Will this provoke pitched battles as competing interest groups struggle to define whose virtues and what methods for forming students in such virtues will prevail? Of course. But as Hymowitz’s essay points out, our schools are already molded in the assumptions and values of affluent, white, ideological progressivism. It’s time to challenge those assumptions.

              Then schools need to recommit to a content-heavy, literature-driven curriculum from the early grades onward. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., cited by Hymowitz, paves the way here with his decades-long promotion of cultural literacy, expressed in his numerous books including, most recently, How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation provides free curricular resources for schools that want to strengthen the content, especially in elementary schools.

              Finally, parents and educators need to rethink the hyper-individualist pedagogical assumptions that dominate instructional approaches in our schools. A good start here is the work of England-based educator David Didau. His book What if Everything you Knew About Education Was Wrong takes a deep dive into educational psychology to challenge many current education practices. As I described in my 2017 review of his book, Didau argues for a traditional model of instruction whereby the teacher as content-area expert explains new material, models new skill and application of knowledge, and carefully directs students through scaffolded levels of practice until independence is achieved. A good teacher is indeed the “sage on the stage” and students stand to benefit accordingly.

              Resolving the cultural contradictions of American education will not be easy. In fact, doing so will be controversial and difficult. But as Hymowitz describes, our schools are adrift and conflicted in their sense of purpose, and in many cases failing to adequately educate our students academically or in virtue. The classical idea of “liberty” is not the freedom to do whatever we please, but rather having both the knowledge and the wisdom to freely choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. This more noble kind of individualism is what our children, and our world, is hungry for, and what our schools should, in collaboration with families and community, try to foster.