In the tenth episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Robert Pondiscio of the American Enterprise Institute. Pondiscio has spent more than two decades in the education system, both as a civics teacher and as a writer and reformer. He is the author of numerous books, most recently How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.

Robert and Inez discuss the purpose of a public education system in a self-governing republic, as well as the tension between liberal pluralism and creating the kind of common body of cultural commitments and information that make citizenship possible. They also investigate the failures of the education reform movement, of which they both consider themselves members.

Based on his decades of experience as an educator, Pondiscio lays out some warnings and roadblocks for parents and activists seeking to challenge Critical Race Theory in public schools, and expresses skepticism that top-down laws from state legislatures will do the job.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.


TRANSCRIPT

Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. Today, we’re joined by Robert Pondiscio. Robert is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he writes incisively about education. Before he was a think tanker, he was a civics teacher, and before that, he worked in the news business. He’s also the author of many books, but most recently, How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice which chronicles his observations of the successful but controversial Success Academy Network of Charter Schools.

Robert has been published in just about every worthy outlet imaginable from the Wall Street Journal to the Atlantic. But what I particularly love about his work is that he has long been a champion of opening up what I think he has turned the black box of the classroom. And actually talking and thinking about what kids are actually learning and what teachers are actually teaching which as strange as it sounds, that’s actually really rare among people in our crowd who work in education policy or education reform. It seems like we really don’t want to talk about what exactly is going on in the classroom. And we prefer to focus on funding systems or sort of more policy oriented conversations. But Robert, welcome to High Noon. It’s great to have you here.

Robert Pondiscio:

Thanks for having me. Yeah. It’s so amusing to hear you describe this to other people, because this is the reaction I get all the time which is like, “Wait a minute, we really don’t talk about what kids to do all day seriously?” Because if you’re a mom, that’s all you talk about is your kid’s homework assignments and what their classes are. But those of us in education wonk world that’s all beneath our dignity, I guess.

Inez Stepman:

Well, why don’t we start out by talking a little bit about this turn in your career because I believe you were already in your 30s. You decided to quit a successful career in journalism. You were working at Time and Business Week and you decided to teach civics to fifth graders in the Bronx. So what prompted you to do that?

Robert Pondiscio:

Well, I’d been drinking it was … I joke, but it’s really not a joke. I call it my mid-career impulse purchase. I’ve been 20 years in the media business. I was the Public Affairs Director for Time and for Business Week and the risk of being somewhat mawkish about it, 911 had just happened in New York City. And I think a lot of us, I was almost 40, we were probably thinking, oh I could probably be doing something else right now, at least temporarily. So I was seduced by an ad on the New York City subway system for a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. I will never forget this ad. It had this wonderful tagline that said, “You remember your first grade teacher’s name, who’ll remember yours?”

Oh, that’s good. So it just kind of caught me at the right time. And I’d long been involved in not-for-profit work in the South Bronx. I was on the board then and now of an organization called East Side House Settlement. Which while I’ve been on the board, kind of went from cradle to grave social services to more educationally focused mission. I’d written a couple of kids’ books. I just had a kid. So it just kind of the sevens were popping up on the flight middle in this case, education, education, education were popping up on the slot machine in my life. And I signed up for what I thought would be a two year mid-career public service stent in teaching, not civics that came later, but fifth grade in the South Bronx at a rather poor performing public school.

That two-year mid-career public service stent then turned into five years. I got very kind of agitated I guess I’ll say, about certain issues in education not the least of which is curriculum and instruction. And it just became a second career. I never woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to switch and go into education for the rest of my life.” But it just kind of evolved that way.

Inez Stepman:

So exactly the focus that you have, which is curriculum although you also focus on instruction and the science of reading and all kinds of pragmatic aspects, but particularly civics instruction, which you did do for many years. There’s no doubt that parents across the country and school boards are engaged in huge clashes now over essentially the subject of civics, right? What students are going to learn in America about being American. And so you have this great piece in commentary, and I’m going to read you a quote from it, read you back your own words and ask you to explain a little more what you mean. But you wrote “A generation of teachers, administrators and policymakers has been trained encouraged and even required by law to view their work through the lens of racial disparity. The woke revolution roiling our schools with its Manichean view of oppressors versus suppressed is an overnight development that has been decades in the making.”

So I feel like we’re focusing on this very specific sharp moment that essentially started last summer with the death of George Floyd, that shone a huge spotlight on these specific issues. But you point out in this piece that one, this has been going on for a lot longer than the last few months. And two, it has a lot of facets that are beyond the surface. That it’s truly systemic in a way, which is the less favorite word.

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. In that commentary piece I stole a line from Hemingway. One of his characters described how we went bankrupt and he said gradually then suddenly. Oh he said two ways gradually, and then suddenly, and it’s the same thing. I think we’ve arrived at this anti-racism moment. And I should to make air quotes anti-racism in two ways gradually, and then suddenly. I point it out to people that when I went to ed school 20 years ago and got my master’s degree in elementary education, well one of the graduation requirements in order to get my master’s and teach and be certified was I had to demonstrate in my portfolio of schoolwork a core commitment to social justice.

That was 20 years ago. And you could trace this back and far beyond that, Chester Finn my former Fordham colleague, I think I may have quoted him in that piece, loves to say that progressives of I have always thought that schools were a swell place to kind of impose their views on children. So I can’t say with any degree of authority whether that is a dominant theory of education or the dominant theory of education, but it’s quite widespread, and it has been for quite a while. I mean, any number of teachers, this is the water in which you swim. And I also pointed out, you were kind of said that commentary piece, that if you’re under the age of 40, you’ve never known a day in your career where you didn’t go to work thinking that my job is to close the achievement gap.

I mean that’s not the left that’s policy. That’s stuff that those of us on the right love. That’s accountability and standards and testing and whatnot. So I mean, every impulse in American education both in policy and practice for the last 20 years has been to shine a harsh light on the so-called achievement gap and to make policy and practice aimed at closing it. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing, right? In other words we should be disturbed by the degree to which it’s difficult to be black and brown in America and get your kid educated to the same standards as well off white kids. That’s a scandal that we should be concerned about. Now the open question is, are we getting any better at closing it? And there the answer is, well the long answer is it’s complicated and the short answer is no.

Inez Stepman:

Let’s talk a little more about you said the water in which people are swimming in the education system has been certainly left and center, but let’s say social justice oriented or it’s … I feel like every several years we come up with a new word for this type of thinking that then becomes tarred with a lot of people who dislike it. And then they choose a new word, right? So we went from social justice warrior to political correctness to-

Robert Pondiscio:

Woke.

Inez Stepman:

Woke the elect, which is John McWhorter’s term. But you point out that the water is essentially warm for these folks. What are some of the things that create the tank?

Robert Pondiscio:

If I can say so, it’s not just for those folks it’s for all of us folks. In other words, okay, so I consider my ed reform credentials to be in pretty good order even though I’ve probably written more critically about education reform than anybody not named Diane Ravitch. But I do it from within as opposed to throwing bombs from without, because I agree with the impulse. I mean, look I just told you my backstory that 20 years ago I signed up to teach in the South Bronx. If I was not concerned with the fortunes of low-income kids of color, then I would not have signed up to do that. And I’m not a lefty, this just struck me as, as being just decent fairness.

In other words, I said this somewhere else, I didn’t sign up to smash or dismantle anything. I just signed up to try to make the system work a little bit more fairly. So that’s the dividing line, but a lot of us in this work, we have the same concerns. We just have different ideas about how to go about it. So I just completely avoided your question. I’m sorry, can you … Sorry, I wanted to correct your premise. Now I’ll answer your question, but you have to remind me of what it was.

Inez Stepman:

So what are some of the aspects that make up that tank of water? Does this have its roots in the university or ed schools, teacher trained? What are the sort of planks if you become a teacher and you decide that this is what you want to do with your life as you did in your 30s, but as many people do straight out of college, right? That you want to become a teacher, or you want to work in the education system in some way. What are the various ways in which you are pushed into this kind of woke positioning or lens through which to see education?

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah, and forgive me I’m going to indulge myself with a lot of gray beard talk here, but 20 years ago if you’d asked that question well, you would have heard the answer is things like school choice, charter schools, specifically these so-called, we don’t say this anymore, we don’t call them no excuses schools. The KIPPs, the achievement first, the success academies of the world. Charter schools that were known for a rigorous curriculum, very regimented school uniforms. Kids being told to sit up, track the teacher, all this stuff that was considered … And these schools were just the prettiest girl at the education reform dance, so to speak.

You could go back and Google these glowing, media segments of KIPP on 60 minutes, magazine articles in the New York Times magazine, et cetera. What movies like Waiting for Superman, et cetera, it’s almost unimaginable right now what a halo effect there was over this brand of education. And that’s completely changed. Somewhere along the line, probably about 10 years ago, there was kind of a counterrevolution and it persists to this day where those schools were perceived as a militaristic harsh, overly regimented, a word that I hadn’t heard until recently, carceral meaning prison-like.

So it’s been kind of a just in the course of my 20 years in this work, just like a stunning reversal of fortunes and to be complete the detail, a lot of these schools themselves have now repudiated a lot of the work that they used to do, and they are among the most woke, so to speak. I mean most famously KIPP a year ago or so, publicly renounced its “work hard, be nice” slogan. One of the founders, David Levin issued this letter that honestly it sounded like it was the product of a struggle session. It was almost embarrassing the degree to which he held himself accountable for allowing KIPP to become a … I don’t have it in front of me. So I want to be careful in quoting anything, anti-black et cetera, engaging in white supremacy or elements of white supremacy culture, et cetera.

I mean, just going all in on the kind of the current way we talk about wokeness, white supremacy, anti-racism, et cetera. So even some of the schools and institutions that I would argue can most honestly claim to be genuinely anti-racists are rowing as far away from this stuff from 20 years ago as they can. And the open question is, is this in the best interest of the students they serve? I want to be fair minded here. I don’t think we know yet. But I’m very, very skeptical as I’ve said elsewhere, if I thought this stuff was in the best interest of the children I’ve taught for the last 20 years I’d say so, but I just don’t think it is.

Inez Stepman:

So a lot of the concepts that are integral to so-called, no excuses, charter schools and just for the audience that isn’t as embroiled in these kinds of education debates as we have been, those are schools that have as Robert said a very regimented, strict culture. They really demand a lot of students and from parents and from families, which Robert chronicles in his book on success academy, and they drill right? They drill kids in everything from wearing the correct uniform, the socks with their uniforms to eventually mathematical equations. But what they do is produce test scores that are outstripping wealthy more white districts with a lot of kids who are coming from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and primarily are black and Hispanic. But I mean it seems like there’s an inherent contradiction here with all of the methods that schools, those kinds of no excuses charter schools get, to get what is their central kind of claim to fame, right?

Which is closing that achievement gap. And actually in fact putting disadvantaged students at the top of the pile in terms of test scores in the state. If testing, as Ephraim Kennedy says, if acknowledging and achievement gap is itself a form of racism, if the Smithsonian Institute is putting out documents that say being on time and worshiping the written word are white supremacy. How can KIPP and success academy and democracy prep go along with all these charter networks, go along with those concepts when literally the keys to their success have been, especially as you chronicle in your book, building that kind of culture that prepares kids for learning? That exactly that bougie culture, or whatever you want to call it.

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah. You know it’s curious and we should promise ourselves that we’ll revisit this topic again in a year once kids are back in real school face to face with teachers and see if this dynamic doesn’t change. Well I could come at this a lot of ways, not the least of which is if I want to be really candid about it. I think a lot of us in the ed reform movement have to confess or ought to confess that we have failed. In other words if the impetus behind the classic ed reform movement was standards and accountability and testing is going to create this rising tide that lifts all boats as measured through test scores. Well, if that was going to happen, we’d have seen it by now.

So it’s not going to happen. So the reason I focus on urban charter schools, I’ve spent so much time including in the book that you’re nicely referenced looking at urban charter schools is to my mind that that is the one clear unambiguous victory of the ed reform movement in the last 20 years. We’ve kind of we haven’t put a lot of points on the board as a movement but that when we’ve gotten right. I mean you would much rather be a low income kid of color in a city with a vibrant charter school ecosystem now than 50 years ago. I mean, it’s just there’s just no question about it. I mean these schools as a category are just sending boxcar numbers of kids to college that would not have gone a generation ago.

So in my darker moments, Inez, I wonder in as if one of the reasons that we are now having this kind of existential moment about anti-racism and the best way to educate kids of color is not a direct result of that failure. Not the charter schools, but the reform movement in general. I mean I could convince myself, I haven’t given this a great deal of thought, but I could convince myself that if you put all the smartest people on a problem, and they fail, they need an excuse or not an excuse they need to explain to themselves why they’ve never failed at anything, but they have failed to fix American education. So there must be an explanation. I don’t want to tell stories out of school, but this happened publicly so I’m not.

I was on a panel some years ago, a few years ago, at AEI ironically, where I now work with Howard Fuller with Elisa Villanueva Beard, the Head of Teach for America. And she just started … This was when we first started describing this, when ed reform kind of had this extreme leftward tilt the five years ago. I’d written about this some. And she started to saying these things like just describing the systemic racism that kids were up against. And I said, wait a minute hold on a second, 15 years ago, we were the people who were saying and who were pushing back when the Diane Ravitch’s and the Richard Rothsteins of the world said, “If you want to fix schools, you’ve got to fix poverty first.”

And we were the ones who say, “No, we’re going to use schools to fix those things.” Now we’re saying the same thing only instead of saying, fix poverty first, fix racism first. And she took great umbrage and said that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s like, that’s exactly what you’re saying. So if I sound frustrated that’s not by accident, it is rather frustrating that I think we have in the main, kind of gotten this one right. And we are repudiating, whether we’re at risk, I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush. We are at risk of repudiating and giving back the gains that we made on behalf of the students that I have spent the last 20 years caring about.

Inez Stepman:

You know, there’s another way in which this moment, I think challenges ed reform and school choice and the things that you and I have spent, you longer than I have obviously, but I’ve spent the last decade advocating for, and still very much believe in as a solution. But there’s another challenge to that. The kind of things, the letters that Barry Weiss has been publishing on her sub stack from teachers and parents in schools, private schools, where parents are spending $54,000 a year in tuition and are deeply unhappy with the fact that their kids are learning to view the world primarily through the prism of race and to view their friends and their next door neighbors primarily through the prism of race. And yet not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re not doing anything about it except anonymously complaining and our entire movement has been based on the idea that if we empower parents with the ability to choose these schools.

Robert Pondiscio:

That they will make their choices. No, no. Well, thank you. And let’s put a fine point on it, shall we? Because okay having, let’s keep a board of how many people I can upset during our talks. So I’m now kind of out of the ed reform movements disappointment. Now I’ll go after the choice movement, even though I make fun, I like choice. I’m a choice guy. Did I mention I’m a choice guy? Because I’m a choice guy. So, Inez, I’m a choice guy, but this is to my mind, it just shows a bit of the bankruptcy of the model. I mean, if parents who literally could choose to send their kids anywhere. When you can pay $55,000 a year for private school education you truly enjoy unfettered choice.

You can move to a school system that has first rate at schools, you can opt out of the public system. You can afford any public or any Catholic parochial private school under the sun. So your point is excellent. So Barry Weiss has been, and others, have chronicle just these freakishly horrible stories about kids being separated into affinity groups. Kids being asked to rank themselves by their privilege, et cetera. And to your very good point, not doing a thing about it, just seething privately. So if the choice model is the way to go, then why haven’t these parents done what the model would predict that they would do, which is to vote with their feet? And if the parents with the most choices are unwilling to do this, then what makes us think for a second that parents with fewer options and fewer resources are going to demonstrate the bravery that the most affluent parents will not. I keep asking this question, I have not heard a satisfactory answer.

Inez Stepman:

So I’ll give you one potential answer a pushback a little bit. I think the 800 pound gorilla in the room here is wanting to get your kid into Harvard.

Robert Pondiscio:

I think yeah, that’s reasonable.

Inez Stepman:

And the role of universities in setting and this is a larger point about entering the managerial class of America, which is now largely woke, whether it’s the corporate side of things or the education side of things, or the academic side of things. Whereas there are millions and millions of middle-class Americans I think they are well they of course want their children to succeed. They also are probably more likely than some of these parents in these elite prep schools to prefer for example, that their kids are not treated this way and that their kids grow up with a healthy patriotism and love for the country that they grew up in, then that they go to Harvard. And I think that’s really what we’re talking about here is what things are prioritized by which sectors of parents.

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah I think you’re right. I’ve heard that explanation and it’s plausible. In other words, if you perceive the elite private school as the golden ticket, that’s going to extend your privilege and get your kid into the Ivy league, then you’re probably willing to hold your nose and go along with whatever it is, whatever nonsense that private school is offering because you have your eyes on the prize, so to speak. But now let’s take a longer view of that. If these schools are indeed these kinds of citadels of wokeness, and I see no reason to think they’re not, well then how much longer are they going to be interested in admitting the sons and daughters of upper affluent white Americans regardless?

In other words what incentive does this Harvard or Yale have to not try to identify the kids from those outstanding urban charter schools that are at risk right now? Because those if you are going to believe your own rhetoric about what it means to be anti-racist and equity, well then those are the kids you should be seeking out and admitting. So it’ll be interesting to see … I mean, a couple of these private schools. I remember a few years ago a Canary in the coal mine the Dalton School in New York, I think had no kids admitted to Harvard for the first time in its entire history. And you would think that a meteor was colliding with the earth for all the Sturman drawn. But I predict you’re going to see more of that, because even though either way you lose.

You’re subjecting yourself, at top dollar, to your kid being subjected to an education that’s not affirmative of your values, in the hopes of getting something that you might not get anyway. So at some point when do people of good conscience just stand up and say, “Wait a minute, this is not what I want.”

Inez Stepman:

You know I actually find that explanation very optimistic in the sense that maybe I have a more pessimistic view I think that this will be, it’ll be amazing how you see this ideology get twisted to essentially boost the failed sons and daughters of the elite, that they’re going to demonstrate their bona fides to Harvard by doing some kind of project in these prep schools right? By pledging the most fealty to wokeness and thereby perpetuating their own real flip class privilege to be able to admit it.

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah. I think that’s true. And look one of the things that you hear in our world is why are we spending all of our time talking about well-off parents in the richest schools in the country? And I think that’s right. I mean again, I’ll say it for the 15th time, I’m a choice guy. I love choice. But I’m also not willing to turn my back on the 80 to 90% of kids who are still going to regular public schools and probably will for the foreseeable future. I mean, yeah I think we’re seeing more alternatives in a certain educational dynamism that’s coming from choice. But one of the critical factors that underscores this entire discussion about whether it’s critical race theory or anti-racism is the fact that it is being imposed in some places on what is functionally a captive audience. So yeah point well taken if the $55,000 a year Dalton School wants to do this and the parents are willing to take it well, that that’s on them. But when we start to impose it on a captive audience of children who don’t have choice, that’s a different matter.

Inez Stepman:

Let’s talk a little bit more about that captive audience. I mean, it seems like both sides in the critical race theory kind of clashes that are happening, you think they both miss some critical information and knowledge about how the school system actually works, right? Because they think that it’s about a battle over, for example, you cite the California ethnic studies curriculum that has a whole bunch of offensive stuff in there for a variety of reasons. But you basically say yeah, these battles are perhaps important as a symbol. But functionally what’s in there is not going to change whether whichever side wins those battles essentially about what’s in the curriculum the former curriculum. That doesn’t matter as much as we think it does.

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah, I think that’s right. And this I’m very fond of saying that every conversation about education either gets very quickly to, it’s complicated, or it’s not worth having, and this may be the most complicated one. In other words, folks in our world whether they work at think tanks or they’re activists or advocates or whatnot, they have this impression that you can do battle in state houses and get things and the California ethnic studies curriculum is a perfect example of this. Pitch battles over what gets in, what gets taken out, and then people think they’ve accomplished something.

So I point out … And this is not just my surmise, there’s real data here. I ran study from a couple of years ago and I don’t have it in front of me, so I can’t quote it verbatim, but something on the order of 98% of elementary school teachers, 96% in secondary school teachers almost functionally every teacher in America uses materials that they either create or find on a daily or weekly basis. That only one in four say that their district’s curriculum is their primary source of what they teach in social studies. The culture of teaching has essentially valorized teachers forever calling audibles with the line of scrimmage. And not necessarily for bad reasons for differentiation, for engaging students, et cetera, et cetera. But I remember it being quite remarkable and being surprised to learn that there was no such thing as academic freedom in K-12, that that’s a higher education concept.

There have been decades of court decisions that give school boards basically carte blanche to dictate the curriculum and teachers are what as many court decisions and said hired speech. So you put all this in a blender and you quickly realize wait a minute, we have far less not only far less control of what gets taught in a given classroom on a given day, but far less visibility. I mean it’s shocking to me how little we actually know about what gets taught on a given day, but we assume we know quite a lot. And I’m not even sure what to do with this information other than shed light on it, but a lot of these battles that we’re having right now over critical race theory over anti-racism, et cetera, over the ethnic studies curriculum, make assumptions that are probably not true. You can send signals about what matters and what doesn’t, but at the end of the day, there’s shockingly little, for reasons both good and ill, shockingly little command and control over what happens in your average K-12 public school.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. So for example, you also as by way of example you pointed out that the 1619 project, which was the previous iteration of now we’re talking about critical race theory, before that it was the 1619 project. And a lot of these things, all the ideas run in the same direction. But that was what was being taught in a ton of schools. You point out that the Pulitzer website points that says, I think they’re in 4,500 schools in America but you right in your piece-

Robert Pondiscio:

Every time I look it’s a bigger name. They claim that thousands of schools, let’s just say thousands of schools in all 50 states are, and I can’t remember the language, but it’s a little bit vague, have downloaded or accessed the work of Nicole Hannah Jones and her collaborators. Now, I think it’s a larger number now, but as of a couple of months ago, there were exactly three school systems that had expressly authorized it for use, from memory. I think it was Chicago, Newark and Washington, maybe Buffalo as well, three of those four. So I mean, right now, that’s a heck of a disconnect.

So the Pulitzer Center says 5,000. There are exactly three that have said “No, this is authorized for you.” So they’re not lying about the other 4,997. It’s almost certainly teachers doing what teachers do: downloading, sampling, looking for something interesting to assign, to teach a reading skill so this is culturally relevant. I’m going to use this et cetera. But it’s a perfect illustration of exactly this phenomenon that and how little visibility we have. Again, I don’t think the Pultizer center is lying, but I also I wouldn’t bet very heavily that many school boards are aware whether this work is or is not being used. And not only that but what context?

Look, I used to teach civics, I could easily see using the 1619 project and using that as a unit question when is the actual founding? That’d be a fascinating topic for high school students to debate. And read something from Nicole Hannah Jones and read something from John McWhorter, and read some founding documents and have a really interesting discussion about the theory here. That’s not the same thing obviously as presenting as the unvarnished truth you know this is what we believe in this gesture, the country was founded here, or then or someplace in between. If I’m painting a picture of kind of a bit of a wild west in our schools. Well, that’s kinda what we have. So anybody who’s listening to us who thinks that they can exercise control from afar well, good luck and God speed. That’s just not the culture we have right now in schools.

Inez Stepman:

So what can parents do about it then? So if you are a parent who is really unhappy about the fact that your kid is being split into an affinity group, what do you do? Do you go to the school board and demand they exercise the actual authority that they have?

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah, that’s a great question and we should talk about that. I keep joking about myself that I love school choice. Well, I also love local control and I mean that one too. We have the system that we have, 13,000 local school boards and they have been recognized as the authorities to dictate curriculum in their districts. So I’ll tell you if I were really, really concerned about say the 1619 project or critical race theory or anti-racism, I would probably match directly to my school board and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a couple of questions for you. What is our stance in this district? What do we believe? When do we believe this country was founded? What is our stance on do you authorize this or do you not?”

I’m long out of the business of wanting to answer these questions on behalf of every school kid in America. But I have enormous respect for that local control. So yeah, I mean if there’s a different answer, Inez, other than eternal vigilance and engagement, I simply don’t know what it is.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah, I think that’s what worries me about the critical race theory bills that are going through. Although I think we can talk about this if you want it, but I think we differ slightly on whether or not we support them. I tend to think that they’re a good effort and they show something important about what parents are demanding, what citizens are demanding from their public schools. But what I do worry about is that we’re going to pass these laws and we’re going to declare victory and largely the same materials whether under a different name or not are going to keep coming in as supplemental materials. That teachers are going to continue to be shaped and educated in schools of education that primarily teach through a racial essentialist lens, what I would call it. And I don’t want to keep catering to the Harvard market, right?

Robert Pondiscio:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think the end game here, and I think I would say this even if I were the political left is to not let K-12 education devolve into an intellectual monoculture. Nobody is well-served by that. I mean it’s a bromide to say it’s happened to higher ed and it has. In other words try to find a conservative in the humanities department of a major university. They’re either not there or they stay silent. So I think we should be concerned about a similar phenomenon in K-12. Children should be and we can contextualize this in terms of those kinds of those anti CRT bills that are winning their way through 20 odd states. Where I guess I disagree somewhat with a lot of our friends and colleagues is I don’t like the impulse shall we say, to ban an idea. I don’t ever want to be associated with the idea that there are some topics that are just too hot to handle among educated people.

I think that’s kind of anti-intellectual, but for the reasons we were discussing earlier about how little we know about what happens in classrooms, I just don’t think they’d be effective. In other words, you can’t ban an idea. And having said that, it’s become kind of popular among folks on the left, when you point out the parade of horribles, the kind of stuff that Christopher Rufo was writing about all the time happening in schools. The standard answer has become well, that’s not critical race theory, or as somebody tweeted the other day, if your child is learning critical race theory, they’re in law school. Well, that’s probably right. So in other words what’s happening right now is not called teaching critical race theory, but it’s teaching within critical race theory. So much has been said about “well you really need to understand what it is before you critique it.”

That’s a no. And again, I’ll fall back on my 20 years in education and various initiatives come along. Back in the day it was, ‘it’s social justice, it’s anti-racism, it’s critical race theory;’ it was critical culturally-relevant pedagogies, cultural competence, there’s different names for different … And some people will kind of parse the differences between these like their Talmudic scholars. I don’t think that’s as interesting as noting that they all kind of spring from a certain perspective that is based in critical theory. So, that’s really the issue. It’s not as my child quote learning critical race theory, it’s, is my child’s teacher presenting a view of the world that is informed by critical theory.

And that’s a lot harder to nail down. So again, I think one of the only answers here is transparency. It’s shocking how little we know again about what’s going on in our children’s school, but we should know more. I mean it’s just again, at the end of the day, the vast majority of kids are being educated by public employees and government funded institutions. It just should be unremarkable to know what the curriculum is. It should be able to walk into any school in America and see the teacher’s lesson plans. The teachers should be eager to show me the lesson plans, because we know that engaged parents talking about what my kid learned in school today is a way to drive good results.

So there’s this kind of this big ball of mistrust right now for probably very good reasons honestly. But it’s a Gordian knot, I guess is what’s going on right now? And it is slowly dawning on a lot of us, how little we know and how hard it is to find out about what our kids are doing all day. And it’s obscured by all these kinds of technical arguments that we’re having about well, what’s critical race theory and is this curriculum okay? And is this book okay? Et cetera. So we had a lot of digging to do to get to the bottom of this.

Inez Stepman:

I think there’s a tension a little bit in what you said between pluralism of sort of an idea of if not academic freedom, at least the plurality of different ideas and that there’s sort of an ideal for a teacher to present questions rather than answers. But I mean, does the left have of this one right in a way? What is the role of a publicly funded education system in a Republic? And are we seeding ground when we say it needs to be like, I believe in choices as in terms of … And I believe in pluralism in terms of choice. I think that parents should have, that’s one of the reasons I do think the role of choice here could be really important and exactly what you’re talking about, which is forcing districts to actually pay attention to parents because right now they don’t have any. And I mean the arrogance is simply shocking, right? We have districts complaining about having their materials foyer requested.

Robert Pondiscio:

That’s right.

Inez Stepman:

We have teachers on TikTok saying ‘You’ll never stop me from, from teaching critical race theory to my students” and in fact, teaching them that their parents are a huge part of the problem and what we need to move away from. So I think choice can help us with those things. It can help us with that completely arrogant attitude that a lot of school districts have towards the input of parents. But there’s a question here about we pay, all of us pay, us citizens into this public system, as you say it’s staffed by government employees who are in the employee of the people of the country. I mean, are we sitting ground if we say that they shouldn’t teach a sort of patriotic attachment to the country? Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t teach facts about America’s darkest sins and problems. And I honestly have never met this mythical person who doesn’t want American children to learn about slavery in this country.

Robert Pondiscio:

Of course. No, I think that’s right. There’s so much demagoguery going on frankly on both sides. But from the left, there’s been a lot of … There’s, I can’t remember who it was tweeted this the other day and it got millions of retweets about how ironic it was that we’re making Juneteenth a national holiday at the same time we’re forbidding teachers from talking about it. Well, that’s just stupid. Of course there’s nothing and I can’t pretend that I’ve read all 20 odd bills that are winning their way through state houses. But I’ve not seen any language in any of them, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of these bills in general but let’s not overstate the case and let’s not suggest that somehow we’re outlawing any discussion of race or racism in American schools.

That’s an unsupportable position. But let’s say the larger point that you raise is one that I’m frankly wrestling with right now, which is if you think about it, you’ve got 3.7 million men and women in this country who are public employees and we’re tasking them with a profoundly important job, which is to, I don’t want to say raise children because that’s the job of parents, but to incorporate children into the body politic. So once you decide that your job is to somehow interpose yourself in between children and their community, well then that raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is where did you get the idea that you have the authority to do that? Because it’s just kind of strange to think that the generous taxpayers of your community are paying you to set your their children against them.

It starts to feel like we are in a … I think I said this in the commentary piece, that education is kind of drifting into conflict with its support structures in the way that an organism might devour its host. So this is where I think all of us have a lot of work to really reckon what exactly do we expect these things called schools to do? What is their role? I mean the idea that it should cultivate patriotism, I’m personally very comfortable with that. I recognize that a lot of others would not be for reasons both for good and for ill. But we got to get really clear on that. What exactly is the outcome that we’re seeking when we turn over our children at our own expense for seven hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year? Surely it cannot be to set those children about dismantling the various institutions of American life. It needs to be demonstrated to me that that is in the public interest. How about that?

Inez Stepman:

I mean, to take this one step further, not only are we uncomfortable with the idea that public schools would teach kids patriotism and love of country. Which is now a very controversial statement, but I think would be a totally ordinary statement even 30 years ago. But not even having- yeah, and you pointed out actually.

Robert Pondiscio:

I’m just saying it’s a founding purpose. I make a joke about this that Horace Mann went to his grave having never once uttered the phrase college and career ready. I mean, this was not what we created these schools for. The leading founding thinkers going back to the 18th century and guys like Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Rush’s phrase was that the schools were there to create “Republican machines.” The founders understood quite well that republics tend to end in tears and tyranny so to speak. That if we were going to have this novel experiment called a democratic Republic, well we would need men and women capable of self-government. That implies the need for a pretty good education, but it was not about the private ends of … And I’m not dismissive of those private ends of college and career.

It was about preparation for citizenship. So we have drifted so far from shore now that we can’t see shore anymore in that regard. But it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how some of the current notions we have, about education are at cross purposes there. We are no longer seriously talking about preparation for citizenship. If anything some of us are talking about raising revolutionaries so to speak and that’s an interesting notion. Where’d you get that one?

Inez Stepman:

Yeah I mean, it was the justification in a country where so little was publicly funded, initially. Citizenship and the formation of citizens was the primary justification for public education at all. But obviously we’re now uncomfortable with the concept of public education rearing patriotic citizens. Are we one step even more now uncomfortable with the idea in some sense of shaping children at all? There seems to be this Rousseauian notion that if we provide boundaries and structure and a purpose in terms of citizenship and provide that kind of positive environment, that we are somehow dulling our kids that we are preventing their creativity from coming into full flourishing. Things like student led learning or culturally relevant pedagogy, are really, really popular now. I mean, what is the proper role? We talked about debates between parents and schools as to who has the role of shaping children, but is that kind of assuming that we ought to shape them at all? I mean, to what extent is that idea popular that we have no right to do.

Robert Pondiscio:

The schools will shape children, period. In other words, they can’t not. So the question becomes, do you want to be intentional about this or do you just kind of want to let it happen organically? It’s interesting. This was an unexpected lesson in the year that I spent observing the Success Academy, for the book that I wrote. And I think I may have said this directly in the book, I walked in expecting to write a book about curriculum and instruction, because that’s just generally what I write about. And I somewhat surprised myself almost accidentally writing a book about school culture which is not an area that I’ve really focused on speaking of the water in which you swim. But this becomes another argument for choice.

In other words, part of the reason that I’m a choice advocate, even though I may not be an Orthodox choice advocate is exactly these reasons of character formation. Schools are going to, kids are going to pick up signals about what’s the definition of culture? How we do things around here. They’re going to pick up those signals one way or the other. So do you want to choose a school that has a deliberate school culture that reflects your values? Do you want to take the risk of sending your kid or having your kid assigned to a school that contradicts those values? Even casts dispersions on them. So issues of values is probably the strongest arguments for school choice.

I mean, I kind of gently mock some of our school choice colleagues who love to point out test scores and whatnot. And I’m not sure that’s the best argument for choice at the end of the day. I think school culture is a better argument for choice. I want to send my kid to a school where the signals they get, patriotism or not patriotism, character education, et cetera. Where at the very least I can send my kid to school, knowing that the way I raise my child is not going to be contradicted by the experience he or she is having at school.

Inez Stepman:

You know you’re actually anticipating my final question I wanted to ask you, which is you do focus exactly on school choice, I mean school culture, pardon me. School culture in this book, and you talk about in other places in your work about how important it is to have a common body of in this case substantive knowledge, and then also those commitments that make up a school culture, right? So these things that are perhaps not universal, but are pretty close to it, right. You can sort of tolerate a few dissenters within a body of people but not too many or you lose that culture. I mean, it seems to me that there’s probably some lesson to draw there for the country as a whole, right? To what extent is that kind of cultural the “school culture,” or the country culture, necessary to hold together a nation? And do we have anything that remotely qualifies is that, in America anymore?

Robert Pondiscio:

We don’t or we’re in danger of losing it. Look I am an unapologetic disciple of a guy named E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who has influenced … My work is his work at the end of the day. I’ve never had an idea about education that he didn’t have first and better and more comprehensively. He is best known as the author of Cultural Literacy. And he’s also been kind of been done dirt so to speak by the educational establishment who they associate him with this kind of wanting to establish the Canon of dead white males, et cetera, et cetera. And if you know Hirsch’s work it’s not really about that whatsoever. It’s about language proficiency. It’s about the idea that skillful reading and language comprehension rests for complicated reasons that we can talk about for hours and other time on shared knowledge. That E.D. Hirsch in one sentence said that writers and speakers make assumptions about what their readers and listeners know, and when those assumptions are correct, language is fluid and effortless. And when those assumptions are incorrect, it falls apart.

That implies that our schools have a very important job to do of making sure that we all leave at age 17 or 18, more or less, with the same body of knowledge. And that’s just a fact. In other words language does not care what we think. You cannot change that about language. So you have to reckon with that. And this is both a failure of the choice movement in not wanting to reckon with this and the anti-racist and cultural and CRT audience in wanting to valorize a curriculum that is say completely Afro-centric. Neither one of those poles are reckoning with what we know and what Hirsch has taught us for 40 years about language proficiency.

But it does imply that in order to stitch together a diverse nation, that we need to take this seriously regardless of whether you go to a Catholic school, a private school, a homeschool, et cetera. That it’s important that every child in order to be a functional adult and a responsible citizen in our country, needs to be on the kind of the same cognitive page with everybody else. That doesn’t happen organically in a diverse country. Now, other countries interestingly enough have a better answer to this. I shouldn’t say better, but a more common answer, which is it’s the work of Ashley Berner of Johns Hopkins has been eye opening for me in this regard. She points out that most other countries tend to be more pluralistic than we are. They have far different or a wider variety of schools, mostly government funded, but they all tend to have a national curriculum, something that would make E.D. Hirsch quite happy.

But that is literally a non-starter in our country, because we have that pesky little document called the constitution, which prevents us from having a national curriculum. But here we go again, I guess this may be the theme of this conversation is it places a great burden on us as educated men and women to ensure that these things happen. Not by imposing it, but by recognizing that, “Hey this is, we’ve been entrusted with an awesome responsibility here to make sure that kids leave us with this body of knowledge.” We can’t make you do it, but if you don’t do it, there’s going to be a downstream consequence to that. So all roads lead to eternal vigilance. All roads lead to nobody’s going to do this for us, impose this on us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I think that’s really a great note to end on in terms of the theme of the podcast. I think overall has been eternal vigilance is important and there’s no substitute for bravery. There’s no substitute for courage in these fights. But thank you so much Robert for your time on this podcast. You can find more of Robert’s work at AEI, or you could buy his book on Amazon or anywhere else where books are sold. And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave. We’ll see you next time on High Noon.