Restart Your Engine: How to Educate an American
  • A review of How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn.1

Readers who are interested in the future of public education will want to read How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn. Solid and informed, the book explains the context of education reforms today and proposes a future path that many conservatives will support.

For people who favor free markets, the most fundamental education reform over the past 30 years has been school choice. That’s the case for me (and for many of the contributors to this book). I spent much of my career working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city that became the pioneer of school choice reforms. I served as a founding board member and longtime president of a Milwaukee all black charter school that specialized in teaching business, economics, and personal finance. I also served on the board of School Choice Wisconsin, which provided much of the policy impetus for the school voucher program that began in Milwaukee in 1990.

The Debate on Free Markets in Education

Many people who support a vibrant free market in education with a limited role for government regret the demise of private education that has taken place over the past one hundred years. Many would prefer an education market made up of all private schools paid for by parents, family, friends, foundations, and charities. Parents would clearly be in the driver’s seat when it comes to where, what, and how their children learn. That said, we should remember that Adam Smith wrote favorably about a role for government in education. He said:

  • Though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.2

Without doubt, Smith would be appalled at the high spending and dismal results in many of today’s public schools. Smith imagined public support for education to be a “very small expense.” It was impossible for him to imagine the expense and bureaucracy of today’s big urban school districts.

Petrilli and Finn are not writing about an education system that was or might have been. They are clearly focused on how things look today in public schools. It’s not pretty.

Their book offers an opportunity to learn about new policy arenas and new “takes” on familiar ones. The first theme is a call for a re-emphasis on moral education, civic education, and history. The second is a focus on diminishing the glorification of college for all and developing school-based and community-based opportunities for young people connecting them to educational opportunities offering dignity and earned success. The third is a consideration of how low income and minority students struggle in public schools due to teaching approaches that fail to meet their needs, the breakdown of the family, and chaos in classrooms. The final theme is the limitations of school choice reforms for improving education in small towns, rural communities, and among forgotten youth.

Petrilli and Finn note that national education reform is no longer a priority. To some extent, this may be the result of past successes. For example, school choice reforms are much more widespread than they were 30 years ago. Many reforms were hashed out in a bipartisan manner. Obviously, such bipartisanship is dead.

Petrilli and Finn insist that, while school choice initiatives represent impressive gains, much remains to be done. They note that conservatives have sometimes:

  • … circumscribed their own truth-seeking behind a wall labeled ‘school choice’ and have withdrawn their own children into schools that suit them without paying great heed to the education of others or the broader needs of the country we all inhabit. (5)
Part I History, Civics and Citizenship

The opening two essays by Jonah Goldberg and Eliot A. Cohen note how our schools have failed to provide citizens who know civics.

Goldberg cites dismal statistics regarding ignorance of American history and the Constitution. This ignorance is consequential. It helps to explain why today’s younger citizens hold favorable views of socialism and support bans on “hateful speech.”

How did this happen? First, there has been an unrelenting effort by the progressive left to reject America’s past and American exceptionalism. Second, Joseph Schumpeter argues that capitalism tends to “burn though” the social capital needed to sustain itself. He writes:

  • The founders, Adam Smith, and public choice theorists alike all understood that the danger to a healthy republic lay in factions using the government to impose a singular vision from above on the diverse moral ecosystem of a continental nation. (15)

Third, there is widespread support of politically correct ideas among today’s young people and an accompanying inability to confront opposing views. Finally, the professoriate has a general hostility towards conservative views.

Eliot A. Cohen comments on the demise of works of patriotic history. He draws a distinction between modern critical historical writing and patriotic history. Critical history tries to explain what happened. Patriotic history explains what happened but is also written to inspire. He argues that “patriotic history is a kind of glue for an extraordinarily diverse republic” (27).

Robert P. George drills down on “groupthink” in higher education. Adam Meyerson and Adam Kissel revisit several of the points made by the first three writers. They decry the state of civics education. Their primary contribution is a description of the many opportunities for private philanthropy to address the civics education desert.

Part II Character, Purpose, and Striving

Peter Wehner begins Part II with a review of the history of character education in America beginning with the New England Primer. He observes that moral instruction was a central purpose of education through most of our history. The turning point came in the twentieth century with the values clarification movement. Wehner explains:

  • At the heart of values clarification was the belief that morality was subjective rather than objective, that neutrality on moral questions was the teacher’s proper stance, and that the goal of education was not to instill traditional values but to help students clarify their own values and create their own value system. (67)

Wehner notes that it is impossible to teach or learn when students are rude, undisciplined, and in charge. He stresses that self-discipline is a “basic virtue but not a natural one. It needs to be taught” (69). He urges action but no specifics.

William Damon makes the case for purpose in our lives. He states, “The human species is built in a way that requires purpose for optimal functioning” (75). American schools are failing to encourage the development of purpose among students. Damon places much of the blame on twenty-five years of federal policies that narrowed the curriculum to reading and math. He argues that the “most glaring failure” of schools today has been their failure to produce purposeful, patriotic citizens.

Heather Mac Donald writes with the courage of knowing she is right despite the fact that nearly the whole education establishment vehemently opposes what she says. She begins by reviewing the increase in juvenile crime in Chicago and New Orleans. Much of it is very violent. She blames the lack of arrests or other sanctions. Public school leaders would be well served to pay attention to what Mac Donald is saying. In my experience, one of the dominant reasons that parents abandon traditional public schools in favor of charter or voucher schools is that they are seeking a safe environment for their children.

Michael Barone provides readers with a brief history of education for gifted students, much of it from a personal perspective. He makes that case that parents and philanthropists are doing a pretty good job serving gifted students assisted by the expansion of school choice alternatives.

Rod Paige points to stagnant test scores in reading and math based on statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He reviews some education reforms that occurred after the publication of A Nation at Risk. He suggests that what has been overlooked is an emphasis on the quality and quantity of the energy that students put into the learning process—student effort.

Arthur Brooks and Nathan Thompson conclude Part II by shedding light on a different problem—the demise of dignity. They cite a study showing that “three-quarters of the population either doesn’t feel needed or useful in the work they do, or perceives that they are not valued by the nation’s decisionmakers or institutions” (121). They assert that large segments of society have been left out of the system of earned success. The common policies discussed to address this issue tend to be college for all or universal basic income. Brooks and Thompson reject both as deeply flawed because they do nothing to elevate human dignity. Instead, they propose three reforms. The first is to widen the K-12 curriculum to recognize subjects beyond math and reading, stressing subject mastery over grades. The second is to create local business and school connections so that students can graduate from high school with an industry-recognized associate degree or some other credential. Graduates of such programs would make an immediate and important contribution to themselves and their communities. Finally, they argue that now is time to get over the “glorification” of higher education.

Part III Schools, Families, and Society

Naomi Schaefer Riley observes that the biggest successes in education over the past few decades are the result of expanded school choice. Conservatives need to create new approaches to address the “toughest case kids” by which she largely means young people in foster care and preventive services. She explains that these youth have no consistent adult presence in their lives. Public education has a role to play in serving these students. School choice alone is not sufficient.

Nicholas Eberstadt focuses on the retreat from the world of work by men of working age. He calls for improving K-12 education, vocational education, and the redesign of disabilities programs.

Ramesh Ponnuru suggests that we need to rethink the mission of high school. We need to challenge the idea that a college education is prerequisite for individual and national success. We need new pathways for people who do not go to college that lead to earning a good living and making contributions to society. We need to liberalize occupational licensing. He supports apprentices and similar programs. He even supports personal finance education.

Kay S. Hymowitz explains a cultural contradiction in American education. Middle class children are often raised in a home that stresses individual choices, recognition, and achievement. Such children are the “perfect customers” for the creative, child centered, constructivist, “guide on the side” classroom so preferred by progressives. But, she notes, when low-income students arrive in such classrooms, they are “entering a foreign country.” She uses this contradiction to explain endless curriculum battles and why charter schools with highly structured classrooms are often so successful.

Mona Charen writes about the importance of sharing with young people the advice, built on the research of Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins.

  • 1. Finish high school.
  • 2. Get a full-time job.
  • 3. Wait until age 21 to get married and have children.

This is called the success sequence. Researchers found that 97% of Millennials who followed all three steps are in the middle class or above by the time they reach young adulthood. Charen argues that the success sequence should not be kept a secret from families and youth.

Ian Rowe addresses the limitations of education reform. Family structure, as shown by the percentage of children being raised in single-parent families, seems to be a major explanation for why education outcomes in many locations are so bleak. But current statistical reports make it nearly impossible to study the connections between education outcomes and family structure. Why is that?

Part IV Renewing the Conservative Agenda

Yuval Levin provides insights into the divisiveness of the education wars by explaining the differing world views of progressives and conservatives. He argues that for substantive and political reasons, public education has become too technocratic and too focused on reading and math. He calls on conservatives to press the case for a return to character formation, civics, and inculcating the best of our traditions.

Bill Bennett presents an education agenda for conservatives. He gives examples of states that have made improvements including Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Florida. Bennett’s agenda includes rigorous state standards in all core subjects, rich content, a review of teacher education (to improve teacher content knowledge), licensing, professional development, and accountability.

Conclusion

Petrilli and Finn return to launch a vigorous defense of school choice reforms but then explain that it is no cure-all. School choice alone cannot address the toughest case youth. School choice does not guarantee a content rich curriculum including character education, history, and civics. Large numbers of children will continue to attend traditional public schools, especially those in small towns and rural areas across the nation. What do conservatives have to offer them?

They offer a three part call for action:

  • 1. Refocus on preparing young people for informed citizenship.
  • 2. Restore character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table where they belong.
  • 3. Build an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity to every youngster.

Three Takeaways

My intention in providing the long preceding summary is to encourage readers to get the book to learn more. Congratulations to Petrilli and Finn for their heroic effort to try to refocus conservatives on reforms in public education. They have assembled an informative and articulate set of writers who offer readers stimulating ideas all in one volume.

“It strikes me that the problems are well defined, but they are bigger than the policy solutions presented.”

The book offers thoughtful and persuasive descriptions of problems that are usually accompanied by some sort of advice on how to address the issue. There’s the rub. It strikes me that the problems are well defined, but they are bigger than the policy solutions presented. We can’t restore character education, civics, and history through advocacy alone. What exactly should we do to encourage a return of the nuclear family?

To be clear, some specific policy actions are offered, such as advice to follow the lead of states like Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Florida. But it seems to me that some of these problems are endemic to public schools in the way interest group effects are endemic to democratic nations.

We should continue to pursue aggressive policies for all forms of school choice. Perhaps it will turn out that the charter school movement will find a way to address issues related to children in foster care or who are in preventative services. Perhaps the competition provided by charters, vouchers, and other forms of school choice will force public schools to change their curriculum, teaching practices, discipline, and to pay attention to parents.

But one thing is missing that has serious policy implications for conservatives. We know that dominant instructional practices in today’s public schools with the emphasis on constructivist and discovery learning have failed in important ways. Several authors comment on this. Students’ scores in history and civics are appalling.

What if we knew about well-researched, content and vocabulary rich teaching practices—ones that have proved to be effective with low income and minority students—and what if leaders in traditional public schools ignored them? That is exactly the case we face today.

Direct methods of instruction are not explicitly addressed by Petrilli, Finn, and their many colleagues. That is a big shortcoming. Direct instruction goes by a few different names including fully guided instruction and effective teaching. Direct instruction is the Rodney Dangerfield of education. It addresses many of the problems identified in the book, but it can’t get enough respect to be explicitly included.

Two University of Oregon education professors, Siegfried Engelmann (deceased) and Douglas Carnine have done heroic work in developing Direct Instruction or DI. It features highly scripted and sequenced lessons in math and reading (and other subjects) with special emphasis on mastery learning. There are hundreds of published studies offering ample evidence of student success.3

Educational psychologists Richard E. Clark at the University of Southern California and Paul A. Kirschner at the Open University of the Netherlands and John Sweller, emeritus professor of education at the University of New South Wales, cite overwhelming evidence showing that constructivist teaching approaches are not nearly as effective as fully guided instruction.4

Equally ignored is the work of Barak Rosenshine (deceased) emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Rosenshine’s research illustrates how teachers who begin with a review, present new material in manageable amounts, demonstrate or model new material, provide much student practice, and present periodic review are much more effective than teachers who do not. 5

These are all “sage on the stage” approaches that empirically demolish calls for teachers to be the “guide on the side.” A discussion of the teaching approaches and related content needs to be on the table of the conservative agenda.


Footnotes

[1] Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn (eds). How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools. Templeton Press, 2020.

[2] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner: General Editors; W.B. Todd: Textual Editor (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981 edition). Page 785. Also available online at: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, paragraph V.1.182.

[3] Education Consumer Foundation. Direct Instruction: What the Research Says. Education (Consumer Foundation Arlington, VA, 2011).

[4] Richard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner, and John Sweller. Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction. American Education, Spring 2012 P 6 -11.

[5] Barak Rosenshine. Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teacher Should Know American Education Spring 2012, P 12-19, 39.


*Dr. Mark C. Schug is President of Mark Schug Consulting Services and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Dr. Schug taught for over 36 years at the middle school, high school, and university levels. Today, he works as a national consultant on economic and financial education and urban education policy.

For more articles by Mark C. Schug, see the Archive.


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