It's time for Kentucky to elect the state board of education
What research really says about school choice

Toward a conservative vision of education


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:



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)