Is Education Reform Anti- Conservative?

Andy’s odyssey: Part one

This is the first of a collection of posts about a recent self-assigned course of study—essentially a bunch of reading and furrowed-brow thinking about a subject that’s been gnawing at me.

This series will be an adventure. Though I’ve got a solid thesis, the rest is a jumble of idea fragments. I haven’t ironed out all of my arguments, I sure don’t know what they all amount to, and I’m still a country mile from recommendations.

But over the years I’ve learned I need to write about stuff before I really understand it and then write some more before I can assemble the pieces. Rather than scribbling and editing in private and then, hopefully, producing some tidy digest when the pondering is through, I’m going to file dispatches from the field.

Here’s the gist. Over the last year, I’ve found myself growing restive about ed-reform developments. Sometimes the feeling was hard to explain—a general unease during conferences or while listening to presentations. Other times, I could pinpoint it. For example, when leaders would profess anger at current conditions and a sense of urgency about change but then defer to longstanding arrangements and urge collaboration with them, or when organizations would boast of their commitment to diversity but show no interest in building politically diverse teams.

For a while, I chalked up my grumpiness to age or the zeitgeist. I’m getting older and more set in my ways. As our field evolves, perhaps it’s inevitable that I feel more like an outsider. Or maybe this era’s developments were the issue. I didn’t vote for this brand of Hope and Change, and I’m not exactly chanting, “Run, Liz, run!” So maybe I’m destined to be out of sorts until the political pendulum swings.

But try as I might to blame others, I knew I was questioning myself, too. How could I be disposed to preserve venerable institutions and yet favor dramatic K–12 change? Why was I so supportive of rigorous standards and yet so uncomfortable with how Common Core came to pass?

After months of frustration, I finally put my finger on the essence of the problem: there is no conservatism in today’s education reform.

To some, this might seem obvious. “Reforming” and “conserving” are very different impulses, and most of us got into this business because we were frustrated by chronic K–12 problems and were determined to change, not preserve, things. Even Checker Finn, long seen as the right’s ed-reform doyen, has said, “No conservative, I. I regard myself as a radical.”

Others might argue contemporary K–12 reform is premised on conservative principles (expanding choice, utilizing competition, resisting public-sector unionism), so I should stop bellyaching. But this free-market orientation is only one strand of conservatism.

At its heart, conservatism is about humility. It holds that there is great value in the traditional. Old things have stood the test of time. They’ve proven their worth and grown robust by changing gradually, adapting to new conditions, and adopting new lessons.

As a consequence, such things have deep roots; they help stabilize, and they are intertwined. Fool with one, and the ripples are felt throughout. Tinkering has sprawling unintended consequences.

An implication of conservatism is the opposition to activist government, especially Uncle Sam. Ostensibly brainy government technocrats never know as much as they think, but they can swiftly disrupt what took eons to hone. They can treat an old-growth ecosystem like a playground.

What we have is the product of an incalculable number of private micro-decisions, so a conservative relies on evolutionary, not sweeping, change. She trusts the collective wisdom of individuals, as reflected by local communities, to generate sober, steady, and sensible decisions through deliberative democratic processes.

It seems to me that much of education reform’s leadership appreciates little of this. Many understand only a caricatured version of conservatism. If they entertain the idea that preservation might be a virtue, they quickly dismiss it. Because they see discrimination (e.g., racial segregation, male-only suffrage) as products of tradition, they reject the entire rule because of these inarguably important exceptions. So the omission of conservative viewpoints is considered an asset.

I began worrying this represented a massive blind spot in our field’s vision, one that would soon lead to a grand wreck. (In fact, I began to think this was part of the explanation behind a number of existing pile-ups.)

So I decided to start reading. If I better understood the situation, I might be able to explain its roots and consequences and maybe help avert some crashes. At minimum, I’d be able to negotiate a truce between my two warring minds. When I allowed my ambition to roam, I imagined eventually articulating a compelling conservative framework for future K–12 reform.

I‘ve been seeking insights in some classics (e.g., Democracy in America; The Federalist Papers; Bowling Alone; A Theory Of Justice; Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy), some recent relevant books (e.g., The Founding Conservatives; The Great Debate; Coming Apart; Seeing Like A State), some somewhat unexpected books (e.g., Lost Classroom, Lost Community; The Evolution of Cooperation; Privilege; The Social Animal), and oodles of articles (e.g., “The Case for Reparations”; “The Conservative Governing Disposition”; “The Golf Shot Heard Round the Academic World”; “How Did Conservatives Get This Radical?”; “The Right, the Left, and Reform Conservatism”).

This exercise has seriously meddled with my views on accountability, Common Core, CMOs, Race to the Top, teacher evaluation, testing, vouchers, and more. It’s also helped me understand why I wondered if bad schools could be good for neighborhoods; why I equivocated before the U.S. Senate; why I demanded we End. The Broad Prize. Now; and why I’m drawn to urban Catholic schools.

But my thoughts are still inchoate, so how this series shakes out, I’m not sure. It’ll be a journey. I hope you’ll join the ride. If I get it right, it‘ll read like a page-turning travel journal—entertaining, edifying episodes with a satisfying ending, kind of like an ed-reform Odyssey. But then again, it might end up like Ulysses, a muddy collection of confused stories that you give up on out of exasperation and exhaustion.

Here’s hoping for monsters and whirlpools.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog. It is the first article in Andy Smarick’s series on whether education reform is anti-conservative. You can find the second article here and the third article here.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College