The Real Reason Democrats Are Losing Ground on Education

Cortez Deacetis

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Should America go “all in” on public schools, or should parents have the ability to direct the tax dollars that fund their child’s education to the public or private school of their choice? Please share your viewpoint and the reasoning or experiences that shape that position.

Send responses to [email protected].

Conversations of Note

On many bygone Election Days, voters trusted Democrats more than Republicans on the issue of education––but that may not hold this November, if recent polling is to be believed. The American Federation of Teachers commissioned a survey of 1,758 likely voters in seven battleground states to gauge their views on education politics as the midterms approach. The most newsworthy result, in my estimation, was a dead heat on a question Democrats historically win:

In general, do you have more confidence in the Democrats or in the Republicans to deal with education issues?

More confidence in Democrats ……… 38

More confidence in Republicans ……. 39

Same confidence in both parties ……. 9

No confidence in either party ………… 14

What viewpoints are informing those results? In one question, likely voters were asked to choose the most important among a list of “different goals that public schools might try to achieve.” Their No. 1 goal: “Making sure students have strong fundamental skills in reading, math, and science.” The second-most important goal: “Teaching practical life skills, like how to balance a checkbook and deal with money.” The third-most important: “Developing students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills” (tied with “preparing students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college or careers”). Here are the goals that finished last: “Making sure all children can pursue their dreams” and “giving children the freedom to be themselves.”

Asked to rank the biggest problems in education from a list of choices, the top vote-getters were “Education has become too politicized,” “Many schools are dealing with teacher shortages and lack of staff,” “There is a lack of support and respect for teachers,” and “Students are being exposed to inappropriate teaching about topics like sexual orientation and gender fluidity.” Asked “who is more responsible for politicizing education,” 33 percent said “Democrats and liberals are more responsible,” 28 percent said “Republicans and conservatives are more responsible,” and 36 percent blamed both groups equally.

While several questions asked about “critical race theory,” no results suggested that it was among the most important issues to majorities or even large pluralities of likely voters. For example, when the 60 percent of respondents who said that they are uncomfortable with “the way students are taught about racial issues and the role of race in America” were asked why they are dissatisfied, and given a list of options, just 9 percent said “critical race theory”—the answer ranks eighth among the nine available options.

Yet if you learned about this opinion-survey data from press coverage, critical race theory loomed large. The AFT gave the results of the survey to NBC News first. This was that outlet’s headline:

Teachers union wants Democrats to fight back against Republicans’ critical race theory attacks

Jonathan Allen, the author of the article, began:

Democrats should stop hiding and start fighting Republicans on hot-button education issues like battles over teaching racial issues in school, according to polling at the heart of a new push by the American Federation of Teachers ahead of the midterm elections.

That’s a strange conclusion to attribute to the polling itself. A bit later, the story continued:

In recent years, Democrats—and their teacher-union allies—have found themselves on the defensive against Republican efforts to ban books and lessons on race and gender identity. School boards have been torn asunder over “critical race theory,” and conservatives have portrayed teachers and Democrats as child predators. That has left many Democrats nervous about engaging on cultural issues attached to schooling, particularly since former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost his comeback bid after saying parents should not have a hand in curriculum decisions.

But the Democratic pollsters who went into the field for the American Federation of Teachers concluded that most voters want their kids taught the good and the bad about race relations in America—less so about gender identity—and may reward the party that focuses more on fundamental instruction than ideological warfare.

Wouldn’t a posture of “focusing on fundamental instruction” be at odds with a posture of “fighting Republicans on hot-button education issues like battles over teaching racial issues in school”? The NBC story suggested that this seeming tension would be handled via “two-step thrust-and-parry messaging,” which sounds to me like too-clever-by-half political-consultant bullshit.

Then, two days later, another NBC News article cited the same survey results. But the newer article, co-bylined by Jonathan Allen and Marc Caputo, ran under the headline “DeSantis’ education message is winning in b
attleground states, teacher union poll finds.” That article reports:

The American Federation of Teachers circulated the poll, conducted by the Democratic firm Hart Research, as a call to arms for its members and allies to emphasize more popular proposals like spending more on schools and reducing class sizes, and de-emphasize fights that center on cultural issues.

A major set of red flags in the poll for Democrats and teacher unions were a series of questions that look like they were ripped from DeSantis’s Friday speech on “critical race theory” and teaching kids about sexuality and gender identity … One poll question found that voters, by a 32 percentage-point margin, said they were more likely to vote for candidates who believe public schools should focus less on teaching race and more on core subjects. By 27 points, they said schools should be banned from teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to kids in kindergarten through third grade. By 28 points, they said transgender athletes should be banned from competing in girls’ sports.

Could it be that foregrounding critical race theory while fighting about education is useful for the American Federation of Teachers and for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, because it helps them both to fire up their respective bases without having to show any actual improvements to learning outcomes on the core subjects that majorities of Americans care about most? If so, what’s good for the AFT is bad for the Democratic Party—if Republicans and Democrats credibly attack each other for focusing too much on the culture-war stuff, that will be a net loss for Democrats, whose positions on critical race theory are more likely to divide their own electoral coalition and whose positions on how to teach gender identity, especially in early-childhood education, are less popular with voters overall.

A more ethical and patriotic way for either coalition to win the education issue would be to deliver better outcomes, especially in math and reading. Let’s turn to that latter subject forthwith.

A Case for Bringing Back Phonics

In the Spring 2022 issue of City Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz tackles reading pedagogy under the provocative header “How Really to Be an Antiracist: Teach black kids to read.” In parts of the article, she breaks down America’s dismal performance at getting kids to read at grade-level proficiency, highlighting disparities by state as well as by race, and incisively explains why reading proficiency is so important. But here I want to focus on the solution she offers. She argues that to improve reading proficiency across groups, we need only teach it the right way:

For at least a generation now, American educators’ preferred approach to reading has been known as “whole language.” Whole language encourages teachers to do “shared” and “interactive” reading with children, to sight-read words that they’ve seen before, and to guess, with the help of illustrations and intuition, when they encounter an unfamiliar word. The guiding assumption is that reading is a natural process and teachers should just guide kids toward literacy. Children don’t need direct instruction to read any more than they need instruction to learn to talk.

But over recent decades, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and data-driven educators have reached a consensus that this is not what makes Johnny read. The beginning reader needs, first of all, to “de-code.” To accomplish that, teachers must systematically impart “phonemic awareness.” The shorthand for this approach is “phonics”—that is, the relation between the letters on the page and the sounds of speech. Children learn to blend those sounds, or phonemes, together into syllables, which they then combine into words. With practice, the process becomes fluent, even automatic, freeing up the bandwidth for a fuller comprehension of the meaning of the words …

Though whole language has been failing many millions of schoolchildren … educators have been loath to give up their dreams. So they introduced a (supposedly) new approach with the benign-sounding name “balanced literacy.” In theory, balanced literacy blends the two methods of whole language and phonics; in practice, phonics gets short shrift. Few ed schools or teaching programs show student teachers how to teach phonics in the defined, logical progression necessary for students to catch on to the complexities of the English language. Basement-level reading scores haven’t budged.

The linguist John McWhorter has argued for returning to phonics instruction in The New York Times and The Atlantic. I myself learned to read via phonics at Catholic school back in the 1980s. Also in the Times, Dana Goldstein profiled an educator who influentially advocated for an alternative approach.

A Case for Rooting Out Dysfunctional DEI Schemes, Not Diversity

In Wesley Yang’s newsletter, an anonymous teacher who self-describes as a big leftist relates some on-the-job frustrations:

In my short career as an educator, I’ve had countless experiences like this—encounters with colleagues and administrators so surreal that even close friends chided me for exaggerating or “playing into right-wing tropes” when I repeat them. And there’s a sense in which I don’t blame them, because things really are that crazy out here. Let me rattle off two quick examples for now…

1) I once attended a meeting where we brainstormed strategies to increase AP enrollment. When we moved to discuss the gap in enrollment between Black and white students, a senior teacher said that trying to register more children of color for AP classes is inherently racist and that putting greater value on AP classes at all is an expression of white supremacy. To clarify: I don’t mean that a senior teacher expressed a complex set of ideas regarding racial justice that could be uncharitably reduced to those claims. I mean I sat in a room where a senior teacher literally spoke the words Trying to register more students of color for AP classes is inherently racist and Putting greater value on AP classes at all is an expression of white supremacy, to an audience of other teachers who nodded along or otherwise kept quiet.

2) I once attended another meeting—lots of meetings when you’re a teacher!—where we were working to approve a ne
w weekly schedule for students. When I said I was concerned that it would require leaving some sections of the curriculum untaught, a colleague said that might actually be a good thing, because most of our students are white and their test scores dropping slightly would help shrink the racial achievement gap in our state. Again, to clarify: I don’t mean my colleague had a more nuanced approach to testing that a dishonest interlocutor could twist to sound like that. I mean my colleague literally spoke those words. (To be fair, one other teacher did speak up and challenge them this time, albeit very politely.)

Among the conclusions offered: “I have a real and abiding commitment to racial justice in education. Do I like having to make the same points as pundits who want me kicked out of the classroom too? Of course not. But it’s precisely because I think racism and poverty are so rampant in this nation, and our obligation to respond so overwhelming, that I can’t keep pretending these ridiculous DEI schemes aren’t hurting the children we owe so much to. They are.”

For other, contrasting but relevant perspectives on education, see Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider, Freddie deBoer, and Greg Lukianoff.

A Case Against Banning Books at Public School Libraries

Justice Brennan made it in a 1982 Supreme Court opinion:

Just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner, such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members. Of course all First Amendment rights accorded to students must be construed “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” But the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.

A school library, no less than any other public library, is “a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty.” Keyishian v. Board of Regents observed that “students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.” The school library is the principal locus of such freedom. As one District Court has well put it, in the school library “a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum … Th[e] student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom.”

Petitioners emphasize the inculcative function of secondary education, and argue that they must be allowed unfettered discretion to “transmit community values” through the Island Trees schools. But that sweeping claim overlooks the unique role of the school library … Use of the Island Trees school libraries is completely voluntary on the part of students. Their selection of books … is entirely a matter of free choice; the libraries afford them an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment that is wholly optional. Petitioners might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values. But we think that petitioners’ reliance upon that duty is misplaced where, as here, they attempt to extend their claim of absolute discretion beyond the compulsory environment of the classroom, into the school library and the regime of voluntary inquiry that there holds sway.

A Visual Case for Taking Climate Change Seriously

At XKCD, Randall Munroe draws it in his signature style.

A Theory for the Covid-Era Crime Spike

Here’s Alec MacGillis arguing in The Atlantic that one possible reason for the spike has been hiding in plain sight––the pandemic shut down the court system, and that changed everything. He writes:

Prosecutors confronted with a growing volume of cases decided not to take action against certain suspects, who went on to commit other crimes. Victims or witnesses became less willing to testify as time passed and their memories of events grew foggy, weakening cases against perpetrators. Suspects were denied substance-abuse treatment or other services that they would normally have accessed through the criminal-justice system, with dangerous consequences.

Above all, experts say, the shutdowns undermined the promise that crimes would be promptly punished. The theory that “swift, certain, and fair” consequences deter crimes is credited to the late criminologist Mark Kleiman. The idea is that it’s the speed of repercussions, rather than their severity, that matters most. By putting the justice system on hold for so long, many jurisdictions weakened that effect. In some cases, people were left to seek street justice in the absence of institutional justice. As Reygan Cunningham, a senior partner at the California Partnership for Safe Communities, put it, closing courts sent “a message that there are no consequences, and there is no help.”

On Punching Down, Continued

The comedian Andrew Schulz recently posted a video on social media describing the sale of his comedy special to a streaming service he declined to name. He claimed that the service demanded changes to his content––so he spent a big chunk of his savings buying it back with the goal of selling it uncensored. While discussing the ordeal on the Honestly podcast with Bari Weiss, he described his objection to telling comedians that they should not “punch down.”

“There’s so much baked-in racism in that,” he said. “You have to believe someone is lower for that to even work. Do you know what I mean? Conceptually it’s kind of funny to even come out of your mouth: ‘We shouldn’t punch on those people down there.’ Why are they ‘down there’? Why have you ascribed them that position?” Last year in Berlin, I interviewed the Nigerian satirist Elnathan John, who had a different objection to the “punching down” formulation.

Provocation of the Week

At Marginal Revoluti
, Tyler Cowen argues persuasively that the United States and its people are insufficiently focused on improving the quality of scientific institutions and research:

In our social discourse, we have not elevated better scientific management as a social priority. This could be done in our universities, non-profits, research labs, government agencies, and of course in the private sector too. It’s not a sexy policy issue, but science is one of the most significant means for improving society. In the language of finance, you could say that science is a major source of social alpha.

Science offers the added benefit of being relatively easy to influence or control. Trying to improve the management and policy of U.S. science isn’t an easy task, but it is a relatively small part of our economy and the notion of science is relatively well-defined. Furthermore, our government has many direct policy levers such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, not to mention numerous state universities. If we can’t improve the performance of our science, you have to wonder what can we do.

In contrast, some other sources of society-wide superior performance are broad and far-ranging in nature, but often too difficult to steer. I have in mind such variables as “trust,” or “having a cooperative culture.” Those are strong positives for societies, but also a little intimidating for a policy program and they can be very difficult to pin down.

Is science really a source of social alpha?

Well, science gave the world mRNA vaccines, though not to all societies at the same time. The U.S. and UK cashed in early there, in large part due to their domestic scientific achievements. Science helps keep the U.S. defense establishment strong. Superior science also was essential to the building of the United States as a wealthy, developed nation. If you are hoping that we cure cancer, or limit the problems of climate change, those issues too rely on science. Most generally, science feeds into productivity growth which in turns boosts real wages and the general opportunities available in society. Science policy could take up a much larger “mind space” in current policy debates.

That’s all for today––see you next week.

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