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In the past few months, there have been countless stories of K–12 schools succumbing to and endorsing the excesses of progressive ideology — teachers required to make public anti-racism statements, the canceling of AP tests if black students do not score as well as whites, class materials that celebrate communism, and “ethnomathematics” which de-emphasizes the need to find the “right answer.”
Thankfully, most teachers that I know don’t align with such extremes. My own colleagues whisper their concerns and discuss their disapproval after such meetings. A poll from Education Week found that most teachers identify as moderate.
These stories do expose a problem, but it’s not the political progressivism of most teachers. It’s akin to shining a light on and fixing individual cases of water damage while ignoring the flooding all around. We must address the broken faucet; in this case, the universities that are pumping out progressive educational theory.
I’m a conservative, but I began my career as an advocate of progressive pedagogy simply because I didn’t know anything else existed. While most teachers don’t openly align with political progressivism, they still look to the university for pedagogical guidance and curricular materials. So long as the university develops our teachers, influences our practices, and crafts educational materials, the faucet will run unchecked. To combat the progressivism in public schools, conservatives need to aim their focus at the university, not public schools or their teachers.
Progressive education falls into two broad iterations. The first is relatively benign — albeit questionably effective. In the minds of educational theorists such as Dewey and Rousseau, schools are not meant to transmit the best of any culture or shape the character of their students, but merely to observe and suggest. In place of teacher-directed classrooms and classical curricula, students choose their own literature and follow their own interests. Many conservatives and libertarians are quite comfortable with such child-centric philosophies of learning.
The second iteration features structuralists, Marxists, and feminists such as Michel Foucault, Paolo Freire, and bell hooks, who advanced an approach to instruction called “Critical Pedagogy,” one which goes beyond Rousseauean ideas of self-directed learning to instead deconstruct the very idea of being “educated.” Progressive pedagogy in the Rousseauean tradition is mediocre in its results but politically neutral; critical pedagogy is propaganda attempting to pass as instruction.
At its most egregious, schools of education push ideas such as “activist pedagogy,” which, as the name implies, would see students who will grow up to be activists deconstructing the society in which they live. In the ’90s, far before Critical Race Theory entered the common lexicon, Gloria Ladson-Billings advanced the need for “Critical Race Theory” in schools. Even Billings still maintained a belief in academic excellence, though, which authors like Ibram X. Kendi now renounce to instead suggest we test students on the mere knowledge of their own environments. In my own graduate program, our textbook suggested teachers should, if required to teach classic literature, do so through a Marxist, feminist, post-colonial, or critical-race “lens.”
Such ideas are not on the fringes of educational theory, either. Critical pedagogy wasn’t a class or element of my teacher training; it was the foundation. Such ideas were not relegated to individual courses but influenced even our seemingly unrelated classes in policy and instruction. Foucault, bell hooks, and Freire were canon. Frederick M. Hess, the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, found that this approach is common across university departments.
This reality has repercussions. Our administrators, instructional materials, policy wonks, politicians, union leaders, and current trends in education all come from the university. So long as the faucet remains running, our schools will flood with such ideas, regardless of the political identification of the teachers.
The consequences of this ideological approach to education are far more pernicious than just a few propagandistic lesson plans. Ideas have consequences, and these ideas manifest in vapid instruction. Reviewing one popular curriculum to come from these ideas, Professor Timothy Shanahan wrote that these methods are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public school children.”
Fundamentally, our schools need to reckon with such ideology and embrace effective pedagogy in the classroom. I began my career as a proponent of critical pedagogy, allowed my students to select their own books, provided independent reading time, and always opted for a conversation over a consequence.
Seeing meager results, I sought out other methods. I began to take my students through Romeo and Juliet and established clear behavioral expectations to which I held my students. Critical theories of education would predict anarchy in my classroom. Quite the contrary happened. One student came up to me and told me, “No book before this has really understood me, has given me so much guidance for my own life.” Another wrote me a letter thanking me for showing her that books have so much to teach. My most difficult student behaviorally, to whom I gave many detentions, thanked me years later and asked me to be his mentor; he said he knew I cared about him because I didn’t cast a blind eye to his misbehavior.
Thankfully, this endeavor needn’t only be one of individual persuasion. There are policies that can decentralize the university’s influence and pressure the adoption of effective pedagogy.
To begin, teacher licensure needn’t remain solely the domain of the university. As professor of education Gary Houchens succinctly contends, if educational training “can be delivered with equal quality in a different environment — say in a district-based professional development program — the market should certainly be open to them.” Already, individual district programs and organizations such as ResearchEd and Teach for America all offer robust alternatives that could collectively unbalance the university monopoly. Perhaps a former business owner with a few classes in pedagogy would make a useful addition to any school building, even without a degree.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, in the past 20 years, countless charter schools such as Michaela School and even entire systems such as Uncommon Schools boast incredible academic success despite working with predominantly poor and minority students. To do so, they reject progressive theories of education and instead rely upon classic literature, clear behavioral expectations, and direct instruction.
As these schools continue to expand in number, they become the best argument against the theories of the university. Regardless of what a few ethnographies say, if these charters get the results, why listen to the academic foibles of some discontented scholars? Katharine Birbalsingh and Doug Lemov, the leading minds behind Michaela and Uncommon respectively, have put traditional theories of education into practice and shown that they can succeed. What’s more, they have published best-selling books to spread effective pedagogy.
Finally, ideology and self-interest are calcifying fundamentals of human nature. Op-eds such as this and the examples that Lemov and Birbalsingh set forth can persuade a few people, but the holistic adoption of best practices will remain years away until the bottom line of a school is threatened. Words can be persuasive, but money effects change. If a school cannot achieve even mediocrity but still receives funding, there is little pressure to improve.
Conversely, school choice is a policy that ties funding to student attendance instead of property taxes; if a student moves, the funding follows. Under such a system, if a parent saw progressive politics trying to pass as instruction or a school’s pedagogy left their students illiterate, parents could take their child and their money elsewhere. Some parents could still select a building that pushed woke ideology, but I wonder if enough people would opt into that choice for any institution to remain viable.
In short, most teachers at least claim to be moderate. The institutions that train them are not. If we only focus our attention on a few outlandish lesson plans or individual districts, we’ll spend our time scooping out floodwater while the faucet remains running.