Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Democrats Must Defeat the Left’s War on Educational Achievement

School closings are over, but the fight over learning loss isn’t.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

The recent pandemic school-closing experiment gave many American parents their first exposure to an exotic strain of thought on the American left about public schooling: that learning loss is nothing to worry about because educational outcomes are fake or unimportant. San Francisco school-board president Gabriela Lopez, before voters flocked to the polls to fire her, infamously dismissed the harm from closing schools by insisting, “They’re just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure.”

But this idea was not created by the pandemic, and the return of in-person schooling has not killed it off. The progressive attack on academic achievement is a small but potent movement that has gained a foothold on the left and poses a serious threat to both American public education and the Democratic Party.

That worldview is especially popular among education schools, teachers unions, and the network of advocates allied with and often funded by them. It is cogently expressed in a New York Times op-ed today by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education professor Jack Schneider, the authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School and the hosts of a popular education-policy podcast.

What’s most interesting about the op-ed is its candid admission that the education backlash, which progressives have dismissed as overblown, is very real. The authors concede that “a sense that the focus on race and social justice in Virginia’s schools had gone too far, eclipsing core academic subjects” produced a “furious backlash” in that state, as well as in San Francisco and New York, where voters also rebelled against progressive efforts to deemphasize calculus in California and scale back magnet schools and tracked courses elsewhere.

But after acknowledging that voters are furious with left-wing education policies, Berkshire and Schneider argue that the problem isn’t the policy but the voters. Or, more specifically, they blame Democrats for making voters care too much about educational achievement. Their solution is for Democrats to stop emphasizing educational achievement and instead focus on schools as venues for inculcating social values.

Their indictment of the Democratic Party is premised on a false binary: that one can either try to reduce inequality through education or through economic measures, but not both. “Eager to reclaim the political center,” they complain, “Democratic politicians increasingly framed education, rather than labor unions or a progressive tax code, as the answer to many of our economic problems, embracing what Barack Obama would later call ‘ladders of opportunity,’ such as ‘good’ public schools and college degrees.”

Their claim that Democrats supported better schools “rather than” labor unions and a more progressive tax code is patently false. As a matter of logic, there’s obviously no trade-off between progressive taxation and better schools. In fact, Obama worked to strengthen labor unions (it’s hard!) and successfully reduced taxes at the bottom and raised them at the top. While their claim that Democrats like Obama chose education as an alternative to these policies is the foundation of their argument, they don’t provide a single example to support it. Obama has written and spoken hundreds of thousands of words about the economy, and if he ever uttered a single line saying that schools were a substitute for taxes and unions, the authors would have quoted it.

In place of any evidence that Democrats hold this view, they instead repeatedly attack a straw-man view that education is the only thing that matters for getting ahead. The op-ed criticizes the belief that “education is the key to addressing economic inequality”; insists “degrees do not necessarily guarantee success”; insists “schools can’t level a playing field marred by racial inequality and increasingly sharp class distinctions”; denies “schools alone can foster equal opportunity”; and rebuts “the belief in education as the sole remedy for economic inequality” and that schools can “solve inequality” (italics mine). Blunt repetition takes the place of any evidence Democrats advocate this position.

Proceeding from this false premise, the authors argue that Democrats have seeded the backlash that is now scorching them: “Because Democrats have spent the past 30 years framing schooling as the surest route to the good life, any attempt to make our education system fairer is met with fierce resistance from affluent liberals worried that Democratic reforms might threaten their carefully laid plans to help their children get ahead.”

There are a couple astonishing beliefs packed into this sentence. First, it asserts (again, without any evidence) that the backlash to the progressive education agenda comes solely from “affluent liberals.” The fiercest backlash to the progressive attack on magnet schools has come from working-class Asian Americans. The authors themselves concede elsewhere in this op-ed that “centrist parents” in Virginia joined this backlash.

Even more remarkable is the belief that Democratic politicians are the reason parents care about schools as an avenue for economic advancement. If only Barack Obama would have stopped telling people schools are “ladders of opportunity,” then parents would stop fretting about their precious children’s grades and chill out.

The left-wing position reflects a long-standing backlash against education reform. The reform movement aims to improve schools in part by measuring educational outcomes, especially reading, writing, and math. The left has responded by denigrating not only the policies produced by these reforms, but increasingly the objective of educational attainment itself. The routine progressive rejoinder to policies for improving educational outcomes is to insist that better schools can’t do anything about entrenched social and economic inequality.

This has produced a paradoxical situation in which many education experts are demanding elected officials care less about their field of specialization, a reversal of the normal order of things in which specialists plead with policy-makers to care about their subject more.

Last year, the president of the Los Angeles teachers union defended school closing by blurting out, “It’s okay that our babies may not have learned all their times tables … They know the words ‘insurrection’ and ‘coup.’” This may have sounded like nonsense, but it’s a familiar worldview on the left. The idea is that traditional academic content is overrated and that the real purpose of schools is to instill social values. Hence, it’s okay for kids to lose a year of math or reading, because they’re gaining the social and political education that matters more.

It’s important to understand that, when Berkshire and Schneider complain that parents have “a sense that the focus on race and social justice in Virginia’s schools had gone too far, eclipsing core academic subjects,” they’re not saying the sense is factually wrong. They’re saying the preference for core academic subjects over social justice is what’s wrong.

Later in the op-ed, they urge Democrats to embrace a vision of schools that goes “beyond the scramble for social mobility” and instead sees them as a place to “give young people a common set of social and civic values, as well as the kind of education that is valuable in its own right and not merely as a means to an end.”

Convincing parents to stop caring about whether schools help their children get a good job is definitely a strategy. But it’s not a good strategy. If Democrats care about social mobility and winning elections, they need to recognize that an important faction within their own party has a program that is inimical to both goals and fight as hard as they can to keep them out of power.

Democrats Must Defeat the Left’s War on School Achievement