Unpacking 7 Myths About Education

Over the years, there have been a handful of books about education I find myself recommending over and over, like E.D. Hirsch's Knowledge Matters and David Didau's What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong. A third at the top of my list is Daisy Christodoulou's 2014 book, Seven Myths About Education, which I reviewed here.

I recently had the great honor of being a guest on the Freedom in Education Founders Podcast to discuss the enduring relevance of Seven Myths About Education. Freedom in Education is a new grassroots organization, which, according to its website, is dedicated to "restoring parental rights, high-quality education, and civic virtue to our public schools by enhancing and improving content transparency, curriculum quality, learning options, and equipping parents to act." I love what Freedom in Education is trying to do, and so I happily agreed to chat with co-founder Beanie Geoghegan about the book.

Our conversation covered two podcast episodes. Watch the first here:

 

And the second here:

 

I hope many more educators and parents discover Seven Myths About Education and change the way they think about teaching and learning.


What research really says about school choice

The opponents of school choice are just getting started as they rev up to convince voters to oppose a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers the opportunity to establish policies that assist families in accessing non-public school education options. A recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier Journal shows the lengths to which defenders of the status quo will go to distort the truth about school choice.

University of Kentucky economics professor emeritus John Garen and I penned a response, which appeared in newspapers around the state, including the Bowling Green Daily News. Here's an excerpt:

The enemies of giving families options constantly claim that education choice will devastate public schools. But the Indiana and Ohio studies clearly show that achievement among low-income students in public schools is not damaged by school choice. In fact, the authors of the Ohio study speculate that competition with private schools improved student learning outcomes in public schools.

The various defenders of the education establishment miss the point that your tax dollars are not meant to benefit the public school system, but rather students themselves. Education freedom means that we should start treating education like other public goods where the beneficiary (in this case, families) gets to choose their provider (schools of various kinds).

Kentucky’s school choice constitutional amendment gets us one step closer to funding students, not systems.

Read the whole thing here.


Toward a conservative vision of education

Heritage

Earlier this week I was honored to join some of America's most prominent conservative education reformers in Phoenix, Arizona at the invitation of the Heritage Foundation. The Conservative Vision of Education conference featured leaders in K-12 and higher education, policy experts, and advocates. I attended in my role as policy advisor to Commonwealth Educational Opportunities. As the conference name implies, the gathering was meant as the first step toward articulating a compelling vision for education reform based on conservative principles.

Heritage President Kevin Roberts and Education Research Fellow Jason Bedrick framed the day's discussion by pointing out how conservatives have long been known for things they are against in education (federal overeach, divisive ideological content in schools, etc.), but other than school choice have sometimes struggled to articulate what they are for in ways that have consistently resonated with voters and policy makers. This is not because conservatives are short on education policy ideas, however, but perhaps because we've not attempted to ground those ideas in a clear and comprehensive understanding of what education is and what schools are for.

In his opening remarks, Roberts said that a conservative vision is closely tied to the conviction that education is for the formation of a virtuous citizenry that has gratitude for its cultural inheritance.

Three broad topics framed the day's discussion:

  • What is the proper role of STEM subjects in classical education?
  • How can we promote rich content as a complement to science-based reading instruction?
  • How do we transmit the best of our cultural heritage, especially in history and civics education, to today's youth?

Presenters with content expertise in each question provided background information and context, and then conference participants engaged in a vigorous discussion. At risk of oversimplifying the diverse and nuanced range of perspectives that surfaced, I think the rough consensus on the above questions were as follows:

  • Student mastery of applied science and math (as in technology and engineering) is a natural byproduct of a strong foundation in the humanities and advocates of classical education should not shy away from STEM, even as we recognize that a solid foundation in the liberal arts helps mitigate against the pure utilitarianism that is often associated with STEM subjects.
  • Rich, literature-based curricula are essential for promoting student mastery and the necessary complement to the phonics instruction that figures prominently in science-based reading strategies. Conservatives should advocate for improvements in state education standards and especially the local adoption and implementation of strong, comprehensive, content-rich curricula.
  • Conservatives should not shy away from contrasting our view of Western Civilization with that of liberals. We should own that we want children to learn the best (and worst) features of our cultural inheritance, but generally be proud of our country and especially the moral and political virtues upon which it was founded.

The conversation was exciting and suggested a wide range of new directions and important questions for conservative education policy. There was insufficient time to turn all of those insights into an organized vision, but follow up activities will seek to condense the discussion into a more coherent manifesto. Personally, I had several takeaways that will inform my own work on education reform in Kentucky.

First, as I've written before, classical education is the most exciting development in the K-12 realm, but we must find ways to take the lessons of classical learning and apply them to traditional public schools. I haven't given up on the idea of a traditional public school district embracing classical education outright, but I believe for every district, we should insist on the implementation of content-rich curricula. Teachers should not be making daily decisions about what gets taught in their classrooms. Rather, schools should adopt curricula that clearly lay out the instructional materials for every grade with a strong emphasis on science, social studies, and rigorous math and science materials. Kentucky should continue to review and improve its standards, but the state should also review and recognize comprehensive curricular programs (Core Knowledge would be a good one) and incentivize districts to adopt and implement them.

Second, we should partner this emphasis on rich content with an expansion of Kentucky's science-based reading initiative. Every teacher and administrator in the state should be required to participate in LETRS, or some similar, rigorous professional development focused on the science of reading. Every university teacher education program should be required to teach this approach to reading and pre-service teachers should be assessed on it.

Third, conservatives should relentessly push for more school choice programs so that families and educators have an opportunity to offer more innovative education options, including classical learning, to every family. In Kentucky this year, that means promoting the constitutional amendment that will free legislators to adopt school choice policies without the interference of anti-school choice judges. Beyond, it means fighting to push the legislature to adopt the most robust school choice policies possible. School choice empowers parents to make schools more accountable to their child's needs, and to conservative values.

Finally, the work started by the Heritage Foundation this week should continue as we ground all of our policy efforts in a clear philosophical viewpoint about the meaning and purpose of education. This is, in part, the way I framed it recently:

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.

Conservative policy makers, political leaders, and education activists should regularly express our understanding of the goal and purpose of education and how it contrasts with that of progressives and liberals, who see education as either a purely utilitarian pursuit to train students to be good consumers or as a method of training them to dismantle the very foundations of Western Civilization. Parents and voters understand these differences, and we can make great headway in promoting conservative education policy by making them clear.

Related posts:

 


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 best

Update, 3/13/2024: The Kentucky General Assembly approved HB 2 in modified form. It will now go to the voters as a ballot initiative in the November election. Many thanks to the hardworking lawmakers who made this possible.

Update, 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.

Related posts:


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