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Cultural Realism in K-12 and Higher Education
Editor’s note: This is the first release in a new TLP series surveying major domestic and foreign policy issues facing the country. These articles will explore the basic factual context shaping each policy area, examine the major positions on offer across the ideological spectrum, and evaluate which ideas are best—or if new ideas may be needed—to help advance a common-sense perspective in American politics and policymaking.
Elementary, secondary, and higher education policy remain enormously important to promoting both social mobility in the American economy and social cohesion in American democracy. Yet our debates over schools are too often hijacked by the extremes. People across the political spectrum will never agree on all public policy issues involving education because they raise contentious issues about the future direction of the country and affect the one thing people care about most deeply: their children. But there are some common-sense ideas that even in our polarized age command broad public support: that schools ought to equip kids to be productive members of society, morally grounded human beings, and young adults who love democracy and embrace a reflective American patriotism.
Part One: The Shortcoming of K-12 and Higher Education
Education in America has long had twin goals: helping students gain the skills necessary to enable human flourishing generally and more specifically to be productive participants in a free market economy, and helping students learn the skills and cultural dispositions necessary to be engaged citizens in a multiracial democracy. It’s become more difficult to reach each goal in recent times.
Declining social mobility
The American education system has become increasingly important in determining whether citizens will enjoy upward mobility. If a union card once helped secure a middle-class life in a society where organized labor represented significant numbers of workers, today, in an era when labor unions continue to decline, higher education credentials provide the central mechanism of social mobility for most Americans.
Unfortunately, the educational achievement gaps between rich and poor and between racial groups remain large—and they grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to researchers Thomas Kane of Harvard and Sean Reardon of Stanford:
In 2019, the typical student in the poorest 10 percent of districts scored one and a half years behind the national average for his or her year—and almost four years behind students in the richest 10 percent of districts—in both math and reading.
The suspension of in-person schooling during Covid widened the gaps further:
By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts. The declines in reading scores were half as large as in math and were similarly much larger in poor districts than rich districts.
The higher education system essentially replicates and even amplifies inequalities found at the K-12 level. At selective four-year colleges, upper-middle-class students dominate, while at open-access community colleges, low-income students and students of color make up a large share of students. And yet students with the greatest needs often receive the fewest educational resources in tertiary education and show often dismal results.
More generally, Raj Chetty’s research finds that absolute social mobility measured as the income of children versus their parents has declined in America. Among Americans born in the 1940s, 90 percent did better than their parents, but among those born in the 1980s only 50 percent did better. Relative mobility—the chances of moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth—has been flat and is now only half as likely as in Canada. The American promise of education as the “great equalizer” remains unfulfilled.
Declining social cohesion
The other great task of the American education system is to take a population that consists of every conceivable race, religion, nationality, and economic level, and forge a common American identity centered around a shared belief in liberal democratic values. For many generations, the education system has done a remarkable job of pulling off that Herculean challenge of binding together what author Heather McGee calls a nation of “ancestral strangers.” But here, too, there are dangerous signals that the system is falling short.
Core democratic values, such as the peaceful transfer of power and freedom of speech, are under pressure. One remarkable 2022 poll found that 57 percent of Republicans described the January 6 assault on the Capitol as “an act of patriotism” rather than “an insurrection.” Meanwhile, extremists on the left justify limiting classroom discussion of ideas related to race, gender, and sexual orientation on the theory that words constitute “violence” and certain ideas might make students feel “unsafe.” The New York Times notes that a chilling 30 percent of Americans agreed that “sometimes you have to shut down speech that is anti-democratic, bigoted or simply untrue,” and that liberals and Democrats were more likely express this view than others.
The American education system is part of the problem. Civic illiteracy in America remains a perennial problem: two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of government, for instance, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation concluded that only one third of Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test given to immigrants seeking naturalization.
In the last decade, however, a new problem has emerged: a decline of faith in democracy itself. Researchers Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk note that World Values Survey trends reveal a decline in the trust Americans have in their institutions, including democracy, going back decades—a problem that predates the rise of Donald Trump. When asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about a quarter of those aged 16 to 24 in 2011 said democracy was bad or very bad—a one-third increase from a decade and a half earlier. Some 25 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that people in a democracy should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in sixteen in 1995 to one in six today.
American schools also often fall short in their goal of promoting a shared American identity. Where schools used to emphasize what students of all backgrounds share in common as Americans, in Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, policymakers have proposed a new social studies curriculum, which “strengthens students’ sense of racial, ethnic and tribal identities.” For a time, even the venerable Smithsonian Institution posted a bizarre chart describing “objectivity,” being on time, and appreciating the written word as particular aspects of “white culture.” White identity politics on the right and left-wing identity politics work in tandem to undermine what we have in common as Americans.
Part Two: Common-Sense Recommendations
What have policymakers proposed to remedy the lack of social mobility and social cohesions in America? And are there common-sense ideas that can cut through the thicket of these debates? We begin with three fights in the K-12 domain, then turn to three in higher education.
A common-sense resolution to the K-12 curriculum wars: Teaching kids what it means to be an American.
Americans have fought about what students should be taught going back to the creation of public schools, but the curriculum wars have intensified in recent years. The most recent debates kicked off when the 1619 Project of the New York Times inaccurately suggested that white supremacy is the most salient feature that distinguishes America from other countries. Because racism is what defines us as Americans, we should identify 1619, the year enslaved people first came to America, as the nation’s “true” founding—not 1776.
Endorsed by the establishment, the 1619 Project unleashed a backlash that created its own set of problems. Instead of suggesting a positive set of standards that avoids race essentialism, some conservatives have sought to energize white identity politics by shutting down any discussion of the topic altogether. A Texas law, for example, bars assigning any part of the 1619 Project as required reading, even, presumably, in a classroom that would engage in a healthy debate about the flaws in its view of history. And the right has sought to shield students from books like Toni Morrison’s award-winning Beloved that tackle the legacy of slavery. What’s more, Texas state officials barred educators from teaching concepts that cause "discomfort, guilt [or] anguish."
We’re now caught in a vicious culture war cycle, where each side feeds off the worst instincts of the others. The left uses the power of culture, and the right uses the power of the state.
The answer is neither to teach kids to hate America as a fundamentally racist country or to ban books that are critical of America. To the contrary, the fundamental task of public education, as the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted is to “teach kids what it means to be an American.” While Shanker understood that teaching students to be literate and numerate was of course important, he knew that the preeminent purpose of public schools was to teach children what they have in common as Americans—“a common set of values and beliefs”—in order to facilitate the continued success of America’s democratic experiment and to provide the glue that holds America together.
How does one go about teaching American identity? What are the concrete ways in which teachers can once again become, in Justice Felix Frankfurter’s phrase, “democracy’s priests”? For starters, by teaching the core of the American Creed: the veneration of liberty and equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Civics is one of the rare areas where we should in fact be teaching children what to think, not just how to think. Whereas education in a free society is normally geared toward equipping students to think intelligently for themselves, when discussing the principles of democracy, the scales should tilt toward imparting the wisdom of the ages. The Declaration and Constitution provide, as the Fordham Institute notes, “a common framework for resolving our differences even as we respect them.”
The teaching of history should recognize the brutal chapters in American history but also democracy’s capacity for self-correction. Students should also be taught what it is like to live in systems that fail to protect freedom of thought and don’t allow citizens to elect their own leaders. In emphasizing America’s distinctive system of governance, students can appreciate a shared American identity focused on shared values that counters both right-wing white identity politics that sees only white Christians as “real Americans” and left-wing race essentialism that sees a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, and religion as far more important than what citizens have in common as Americans.
Beyond the public school funding vs. private school vouchers debate: Public school choice that brings kids of different backgrounds together.
Beyond the curriculum wars, left and right have for decades sparred over remedies to improve social mobility. Liberals tend to emphasize the need for more spending in public schools, while conservatives wish to interject more competition into the system by making traditional public schools compete with the private schools that currently educate about 10 percent of students nationally.
Unfortunately, both sides miss the mark—one side more than the other. Liberals can correctly point to powerful research by scholars Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico finding increased education spending increases graduation rates and wages. But that does not mean spending is the most effective way of improving outcomes.
A fascinating study by RAND Corporation researcher Heather Schwartz examined two interventions in Montgomery County, Maryland. In the first, the school board spent $2,000 extra into higher poverty schools in the county to pay for reduced class sizes in the early grades, extended learning time, and better professional development for teachers. In the second, low income students attended middle class schools and lived in middle class neighborhoods through a special “inclusionary zoning” policy under which builders set aside a percentage of new housing developments for low income and working class families. Schwartz found that over time, the low-income students in wealthier schools that spent less per pupil performed much better than the low income students in poorer areas with the extra funding.
The conservative answer—using public funds to send children to private schools—has rapidly gained traction, with ten states now providing that option to students irrespective of their family’s economic status. The movement appears to have recently accelerated in part because some parents have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the rise in political correctness in public schools.
Most research finds private school vouchers are unlikely to improve social mobility. Moreover, it is neither the role nor the purpose of private schools to foster a love of democratic values. Most private schools are religious, which means their primary purpose is to impart their religion’s tenets—not an appreciation for democracy. Their purpose is not to impart a shared American identity, which is why in states like North Carolina public funds have been used to support schools that openly discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation. One school said it “will not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.” and “will not admit families that engage in illegal drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and perverted.”
Instead of focusing primarily on changes to school spending or school governance, policymakers should zero in on the two factors which best predict high academic achievement: raising the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from and giving more students a chance to attend socioeconomically mixed, rather that high-poverty, public schools.
Economically Integrated Schools
Rather than pouring more money into high poverty schools or adopting a system of privatized education, policymakers should create more choice within the public school system through ideas that command bipartisan support—such as theme-based non-selective magnet schools or diverse by design charter schools—to bring students of different backgrounds together. These policies focus on voluntary choice, not compulsory busing or similar approaches, to achieve the benefits of learning from students of different backgrounds.
Today, 171 school districts from Chicago to Hartford to Louisville consider socioeconomic status as a factor in school assignment policies. Low-income students who attend economically-mixed schools are between one and two years ahead of low income students in high poverty schools in fourth grade math tests included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These economically-integrated schools are often also racially integrated, helping foster the democratic message that students are all equally American.
Since 73 percent of students attend neighborhood public schools, efforts should also be made to reduce the exclusionary zoning polices (such as bans on multifamily housing and large minimum lot size requirements) that drive economic residential and school segregation. These efforts have drawn bipartisan support in a variety of states, where liberals concerned about exclusion and conservatives concerned about government overregulation and property rights issues have coalesced to loosen restrictive zoning rules.
Raising the Living Standards of Families
In every society, and in every era, wealthier students have on average had higher levels of achievement because they don’t struggle with the stresses of poverty—food scarcity, lack of adequate health care, or an unstable housing situation. Raising the standard of living of adults will be a boon for the academic achievement of children.
A variety of policies are available that will appeal to people of different political persuasions. Liberals may support creating a civil right to unionize so that workers can bargain for better wages and benefits. Conservatives will have other ideas about strengthening the two-parent family and using the tax code to lift people out of poverty. Zoning reform—which makes housing more affordable so that people can once again move to places with the highest-paying jobs—offers one way of raising wages that often commands bipartisan support.
Common-sense reform on K-12 standards, testing, and accountability.
Over the past three decades, K-12 education policy discussions dwelled primarily on testing and accountability. But that is no longer true: the grand compromise found in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—more resources for more accountability—has fallen out of favor with both left and right. The “Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015” severely cut back on standards, testing, and accountability.
But elements of this reform movement remain important and should be supported. Students should be held to high standards, and well-meaning white administrators should not water down those expectations in misguided attempts to promote racial equity. We need authentic assessments to know how students are doing, and it is important to disaggregate data to know how students of color and low-income students are faring compared to their white and more economically advantaged peers. Teachers should be supported but then also held accountable if they struggle with helping students to succeed.
One additional element missing from many accountability regimes is also important: students as well as teachers need to be held accountable. Many teachers resented the idea that they would be held entirely accountable for whether a student works hard and succeeds. As American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker used to say when his students had an assignment or test, all the hands would go up: “Does it count?”
A middle ground on affirmative action in selective colleges.
For decades, the fight over racial affirmative action often pitted extremes against one another. Those on the far left insisted, against the will of most Americans, that race should count as a factor in who is admitted, while those on the far right opposed not only racial preferences but other efforts to provide a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races.
The vast majority of Americans support a middle ground: merit-based admissions that recognize that students who have overcome socioeconomic obstacles and managed to do quite well despite those hurdles deserve special consideration. Because a disproportionate share of low income and working-class families are black and Hispanic, these policies can also produce racial diversity.
This economic approach to affirmative action can promote social mobility and cohesion. Selective colleges do provide special entre into America’s leadership class; research finds that roughly half of government and business leaders hail from just 12 highly selective colleges. Low-income students who attend selective colleges see substantially higher earnings as well.
A middle-ground approach promotes social cohesion. As the great civil rights leader Bayard Rustin noted years ago:
Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash. However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.
Beyond the free community college vs. for-profits debate: Investing in success for two-year public colleges.
Most students don’t go to selective four-year colleges; many more attend community colleges or for profit institutions. In this domain of non-selective schools, liberals and conservatives often state different policy priorities. Many liberals (and a few conservatives) support the idea of making community college free to students. Many conservatives, by contrast, support for profit institutions which they say are disciplined by market forces to produce good outcomes for students.
But neither of these stances significantly advances educational opportunities. For profit institutions often have a poor track record of success and some “predatory” for-profits consume government subsidized tuition dollars yet produce poor outcomes for students. Meanwhile, community colleges often produce poor results as well, not because tuition is too expensive but because they are starved for resources.
The least advantaged students, who need the most resources to succeed, are concentrated in the community college sector, yet the funding system is structured in a reverse-Robin Hood scheme. Private four-year research universities receive enormous federal tax and tuition subsidies and spend $72,000 per full-time student annually; public research universities spend $40,000 per student and community colleges just $14,000. These institutions have different functions, and community college professors generally are not charged with conducting research. Even controlling for that difference, private research universities still spend triple what community colleges do and public research universities 60 percent more.
The shortchanging of community colleges is associated with high degrees of failure: 62 percent of students entering community college fail to complete a degree or certificate within six years. Although 81 percent of students entering community college say they would like to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, only 15 percent do so after six years.
Careful research by Harvard economist David Deming found that additional community college spending can produce very positive outcomes. Looking at community colleges between 1990 and 2013, he and his colleague Christopher Walters found that a ten percent spending increase raised the number of certificates and degrees bestowed by 15 percent. When students complete an associate degree, they see their lifetime earnings increase by more than $300,000 on average.
Reducing illiberalism on college campuses.
Higher education has its own culture wars.
On the left, students—sometimes with approval from college administrators—often disregard basic liberal democratic norms around the importance of free speech. When the left engages in illiberalism—when it shouts down speakers and tries to prevent people with different views from speaking—it is rarely about disagreements over labor policy or taxes or even the environment; it is about issues that touch on identity, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. That’s why Mike Pence’s ability to speak is challenged for his position on sexual orientation but Grover Norquist is not targeted for his position on taxes. At MIT, a geophysicist was disinvited from giving a lecture about climate science because he does not believe race should be a factor in college admissions—a position supported by 73 percent of Americans in a 2019 Pew Survey. “In other words,” says David Brooks, “the views of the large majority of Americans are not even utterable in certain academic parts of the progressive subculture.”
Disturbingly, these anti-free speech attitudes are most prevalent among students at elite colleges—the very students who will disproportionately make up the leadership class of the next generation. According to a survey of 37,000 students from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), two-thirds of students nationally say shouting down speakers is sometimes justified, including 72 percent of those at top 20 colleges in the US News and World Report rankings. Worse, half of students at top 20 schools say it is sometimes justifiable to block peers from attending a campus presentation, and 30 percent say violence can be justified to block speech.
Some conservative policymakers have used the power of the state to impose their own restrictions on academic freedom. State officials in Florida have sought to prevent professors at public universities from testifying on issues of public importance such as voting rights. Rather than seeking to curb the excesses of some diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, Texas legislators flatly banned funding for DEI offices at public universities. Texas state officials have also sought to curb tenure protections for professors at public universities in the state, a move that could undercut academic freedom.
Higher education should instead recommit itself to teaching democratic constitutional values at the college level. Johns Hopkins president Ron Daniels has proposed a number of smart reforms, which have also been endorsed by his more conservative colleague, Purdue president Mitch Daniels (no relation). These include using random assignment of roommates (to increase the possibility of living with a student with dissimilar views); ending legacy preferences (because social mobility is good for democracy); adopting the Chicago Principles of free speech to expose students to a variety of ideas, even those that may make them uncomfortable; bringing greater viewpoint diversity to faculties; and imposing a “democracy requirement” for university students before they graduate.
These reforms remind us that the need to teach students what it means to be an American—which begins in elementary schools—does not end with high school graduation.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He is the author of editor of 18 books, including: The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action; All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice; Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy; and Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.