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Back to basics for conservative education reform




A conservative education reform movement must focus on civics and culture, not technocratic test scores. Yuval Levin writes:

Public policy debates about primary and secondary education are oddly disoriented in our time. At almost any point in the 1990s or 2000s, it would not have been hard to say what these debates were about and what reformers were eager to achieve. Higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading skills were at the center of it all—whether they were understood as means of imposing accountability on schools, teachers, and administrators; as ways to measure racial gaps in educational achievement; or as a strategy to help America produce students and workers on par with its foreign competitors.

If scores turned out to be too low, in relative or absolute terms, an argument would emerge between the left and right flanks of the reform coalition about whether more competition might help or more money for public schooling could address deficiencies. There was much talk of “accountability.” But that debate happened within the framework of a broadly bipartisan coalition focused on quantifiable achievement scores. That coalition had opponents to its left and to its right, but it involved leading education experts in both political camps, and leading politicians of both parties were willing to play ball.

That era of the reform coalition did achieve some worthy, if modest, improvements in American education. Test scores increased some, especially early in that period. The charter-school movement is stronger, the idea of accountability for schools and educators is more widely accepted, and there is now a more equitable distribution of public-education funding within states—so that differences in local property-tax revenue are not as decisive as they once were. There is a fair bit for both the left and the right to appreciate in these accomplishments.

But the era of the reform coalition also exacted some real costs. Above all, it made American education policy awfully clinical and technocratic, at times blinding some of those involved in education debates to the deepest human questions at stake—social, moral, cultural, and political questions that cannot be separated from how we think about teaching and learning. This has meant less of a focus on public schooling as a source of solidarity in American life, which was once a powerful theme on the left in particular. And it has meant less of an emphasis on character formation and civic education, which were once fundamental to the right’s way of thinking about schooling.

[Yuval Levin, "Back to Basics for Conservative Education Reform," The Fordham Institute, March 4]


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