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School & District Management Opinion

Making Sense of the Left-Right School Reform Divide

By Rick Hess — June 01, 2016 6 min read
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Last week, Robert Pondiscio wrote a column on the progressive-conservative divide in school reform that triggered a lot of heated back-and-forth. Regular readers know that I’ve written about this a lot over the years (particularly in terms of the Obama administration), so I’d kind of assumed that my progressive friends had also been thinking about all this. But they seemed surprised and taken aback by Pondiscio’s argument that conservative “school reformers” feel marginalized and under assault from their putative allies. The kerfuffle left me thinking that today’s “school reform” community bears an eerie resemblance to the education schools that I fled long ago, including a stifling orthodoxy so ingrained that it’s invisible to its adherents. Now, as I’ve noted before, that orthodoxy is not solely (or even primarily) a left-right phenomenon—but there is a big left-right component.

Yet I was struck that the conservative contributions to the back-and-forth were repeatedly framed in tactical terms. They tried to explain why progressives need conservatives if they’re to be successful. The conservatives pleaded that they want only to be accepted, in the spirit of diversity and inclusion. That’s all fine, but it fails to articulate why—aside from ignorance or prejudice—conservatives might disagree with things that seem so blindingly obvious to the 90% of “school reform” land that’s progressive. (If you’ve any doubt about that 90% figure, survey the next fifty TFA alums, foundation staff, education bloggers, and assorted ed reformers you meet. If more than ten percent voted for McCain and Romney or are Second Amendment absolutists, please give me a holler.)

It’s worth taking a moment to understand what conservatives and progressives actually disagree about. We agree on a lot, after all, like the fact that we all want all children to have schools that fire their imaginations, teach critical skills, equip them to be responsible citizens, fill them with joy, and prepare them for life success. We do, however, disagree on how to get there. Moreover, we don’t just disagree on tactics; we also disagree on big questions like what kind of society it will take to create those schools and how to make them a reality.

While the tactical disagreements cut along many lines, the big disagreements frequently fall along the left-right ideological divide. Given the tenor of the exchanges to date, it seems like it may be worth taking a moment to review some of the fault lines where folks on the left and right, in good faith, can deeply and fundamentally disagree. We can look at almost any social policy through two broad filters. Progressives tend to see things in terms of structural inequities—particularly race, class, and gender. Conservatives tend to see things in terms of moral agency and personal responsibility. Now, most people instinctively grasp that it’s always about both, in various combinations and weightings. Crime, poverty, and unemployment are products of both structural forces and individual actions. This is equally true for school discipline and college-going. I’ve yet to meet a conservative working in social policy who denies the role of structural inequities or racial dynamics. And I’ve always been willing to take on faith (even when they fail to say so) that my friends on the left aren’t rejecting the import of personal responsibility. The disagreements are always over what to focus on, what deserves more weight, and what to do. When conservatives push back on talk of structural inequities, it’s usually because they fear other values are being trampled or unfortunate incentives are being created.

When it comes to diversity, I’ve yet to meet anyone in education reform—left or right—who’s opposed to having a more diverse mix of people involved. I’ve never met these white people I’ve read about in recent days who are desperately scrambling to preserve their white privilege. That said, many of us on the right have a problem with the suggestion that “diversity” is mostly about pigmentation. We see a mindset in which group identification is elevated above personal character or individual merit. While many of my friends on the left frequently seem to imagine that supporting the agenda and viewpoint of groups like BlackLivesMatter represents a welcome embrace of diversity, some of us see a push for “diversity” that aggressively exaggerates existing ideological biases. Again, I’ll cheerfully stipulate that progressives are seeking a more just and equal society. They think the way to promote that vision is through anti-racist strategies that address the superstructures of white privilege. But some of us on the right (well, actually, lots of us) believe that this is a recipe for institutionalizing division, resentment, and destructive race-based grievance politics. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. Those on the right tend to concede that this stuff is complicated; in their writings of the past week or two, I’ve see little evidence that my friends on the left even grasp that there’s a serious point of contention.

Historically, progressives have championed a technocratic vision of “progress” (hence their name). They’ve tended to argue that adopting the right policies and programs can cure most of society’s ills. Thus, it’s only natural for them to regard school reform as the key to erasing the effects of poverty and ensuring social justice and adopt an ethos of “by any means necessary.” Conservatives are more attuned to the limits of social engineering, the risks of unanticipated consequences, and the dangers of giving government officials broad new authority simply because you like the people in power. They’re skeptical of the “by any means necessary” ethos, knowing that federal and judicial involvement have all too often done more to promote compliance, paperwork, and bureaucracy than to improve schools.

By the way, in all of this, the left has taken to using “white privilege” in a way that feels to those of us on the right like a maddening, destructive rhetorical stratagem. I’m perfectly willing to concede all manner of social ills, consider the role of structural dynamics, and explore possible solutions. But that requires a two-way dialogue. Those on the left have all too often taken any disagreement on these issues as evidence that those of us who disagree with them are blinded by “white privilege.” If we weren’t blinded, we’d agree with them. If we don’t agree, it’s evidence that we’re blinded. This infuriating little catch-22 can leave even conciliation-minded conservatives thinking, “The hell with it.” After all, keep in mind, those conservatives who’ve made a career in education have a lot in common with their more left-leaning colleagues. This kind of dynamic, though, can make good faith feel like a sucker’s bet.

Why should progressives care about what conservatives think on all this? (I mean, aside from the fact that—outside of schooling—about half the country shares the conservative perspective.) It’s not out of tactical self-interest. It’s because exploring these substantive differences is good, healthy, and important, and makes for smarter decisions about policy and practice.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.