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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem

By Rick Hess — November 01, 2021 4 min read
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I’ve long argued that the web of associations, advocacy groups, funders, education researchers, publications, and unions busily trying to shape K-12 policy and “reform” are two standard deviations to the left of the nation as a whole. This creates some remarkable blind spots, as with the National School Board Association’s recent letter to the Biden administration—which provoked a massive backlash, even from many of those that it purportedly represents, that stunned the NSBA and caught it flat-footed.

But the NSBA’s situation is hardly unique. As I’ve previously observed, “Educational leaders, advocates, funders, and pundits routinely say things that would seem astonishingly ideological or tone-deaf in any other context—but that are regarded as unexceptional in the cloistered world of education.” This is a recipe for a steady stream of unpleasant surprises (e.g., the “unexpected” backlashes that are a regular feature of K-12). Meanwhile, those who question doctrinaire assumptions are frequently regarded with deep suspicion, requiring those in education to look elsewhere for insights to understand their plight.

As it turns out, though, this problem is not unique to education: Two prominent progressive analysts have recently made waves for warnings that should have a lot of resonance for education leaders, advocates, and activists.

A lengthy Politico profile of controversial Democratic Party wunderkind David Shor, who had a senior role running data models for the 2012 Obama campaign (at age 20) and was fired by a Democratic data firm last year for warning that urban riots could hurt Democrats at the ballot box, explained why he’s worried that Democrats are at risk. Shor argues, related Politico, that “young party staffers are far to the left of the median Democratic voters on relatively uncontroversial, bread-and-butter Democratic priorities like combating income inequality or addressing climate change.” Shor blames that dynamic for Democratic underperformance in 2020, Biden’s sinking poll numbers, and what’s shaping up to be a rough election cycle for Democrats in 2022.

Shor cites an influential 2015 analysis by political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hirsh which found that, while 23 percent of Obama staffers cited income inequality as the nation’s single most important issue, polling from that election revealed that fewer than 1 percent of voters felt similarly. In an extended New York Times interview, Ezra Klein described Shor’s takeaway: “The Democratic Party was trapped in an echo chamber of Twitter activists and woke staff members. It had lost touch with the working-class voters of all races that it needs to win elections, and even progressive institutions dedicated to data analysis were refusing to face the hard facts of public opinion and electoral geography.”

That brings us to Ruy Teixeira, who two decades ago co-authored the hugely influential book The Emerging Democratic Majority, in which he posited that demographic trends would yield an enduring advantage for the Democratic Party. Nowadays, Teixeira isn’t so sure. Last month, in a Substack post explaining why many Latino voters appear to be taking an unexpected right turn, he observed that most Latinos think America is “a fair society where everyone has a chance to get ahead” and that, by more than 3 to 1, they’d “rather be a citizen of the United States than any other country.” As Teixeira put it, “Clearly, this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy.”

Yet, like Shor, Teixeira is concerned that those in positions of influence are promoting a political vision which alienates these voters. As he wrote, “Liberal college graduates, especially liberal white college graduates, have gained a sort of hegemony in the nation’s elite media, foundations and NGOs, in academic and cultural institutions, and in the staffing of the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. This hegemony sets the tone for the Democratic Party’s commitments and rhetoric on sociocultural issues.”

America’s schools are democratically governed. Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want—not just what they think parents should want. Yet it strikes me that many in education aren’t accurately intuiting what many on the left (much less what the nation as a whole) want from schools. Indeed, those who’ve endorsed or shrugged off calls to “cancel the classics”—or to renounce “work hard, be nice” as a vestige of “white supremacy culture”—might be surprised to learn that 3 in 4 Black and white voters, alike, support schools teaching the “traditional values of Western civilization,” and that 9 in 10 endorse the virtue of “hard work.” The result is a massive disconnect on questions of grave import.

This state of affairs is bad for those in education, as it ensures frequent miscalculations and clashes with voters and legislators. And it’s awful for the nation, as it fuels distrust and frustration between those whom schools are intended to serve and those busy trying to shape and improve those schools.

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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.

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