Change and preservation in education reform

Andy's odyssey: Part two

This series is wrestling with a set of related questions. Is education reform inherently anti-conservative? Are reformers behaving as though it is when it should be informed by conservatism? What have we wrought by stiff-arming conservatism? How might things be better if we sought counsel from conservatism?

One of the most important aspects of this inquiry relates to balancing change and preservation. A National Affairs article by Phillip Wallach and Justus Myers, “The Conservative Governing Disposition,” sheds valuable light on this issue and proves a helpful guide to understanding conservatism’s role in education reform.

The article describes the “conservative governing disposition,” an approach to policymaking that wonks and practitioners alike should understand. It also surfaces three issues that will be a recurring theme in this series.

Conservative governing disposition

The authors distinguish the conservative “disposition” from policy proposals—it’s an approach, not an agenda. It can be seen in the work of giants like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Hayek, and de Tocqueville. One scholar described it as more of a “temperament (and) less an articulate philosophy.”

Wallach and Myers write, “Conservatism starts with the premise that social practices, habits, and institutions embody the accumulated wisdom of trial-and-error experience.” So much of what exists is evolutionarily sturdy; it is not here by accident. The authors smartly note, “Dispositional conservatism is sympathetic to complexity.” What progressives might consider messy or byzantine, a conservative would see as full and robust, made so by time and experience.

Accordingly, conservatives “encourage prudential reform to address our society’s problems.” Change ought to advance gradually, with head slightly bowed to those who came before.  You never take down a fence before understanding why it was put up.

Preservation

An assumption of dispositional conservatism is that there are things worth protecting. The authors add two important corollaries, though.

“Conservatism has the most to offer societies that have much worth conserving yet run the risk of dissipating their inheritance through wrong-headed, sweeping changes.”

“Dispositional conservatism offers…a useful constellation of recurrent ways of thinking about political change in situations where there is much worth preserving but prudent reform is nonetheless needed.”

The two corollaries are critical (avoiding wrong-headed, sweeping change and prudently undertaking necessary change); I return to them below.

But it seems to me that education reform has never thoughtfully discussed, much less enumerated, what ought to be conserved. Based on the conferences I attend, the conversations I have, and the things I read, that some things should be conserved is barely contemplated.

Rather than working in advance to understand the values of existing policies, practices, and institutions, the order of operations is typically as follows: Push for big change, realize some valuable things were lost in the process, and try to reengineer reforms or chalk up mistakes to the unavoidable transaction costs of change.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for keeping open persistently failing schools, reverting to old state standards, or bringing back pre-NCLB nonaccountability. But had dispositional conservatives been in charge, I wonder if we might’ve asked, “What parts of these old systems should be conserved?”

Maybe failing schools have underappreciated value. Maybe our longstanding practice of allowing each state to build its own standards and tests had unknown virtues. Maybe today’s school report cards don’t account for the things families prize about their schools.

Perhaps progressive reformers’ “deficit mindset” blinds us to things worth protecting.

The trouble with change

Wallach and Myers counsel that change should proceed cautiously, not just because existing things often make a great deal of sense but also because those pushing change are neither Solomonic nor omniscient. Dispositional conservatives “counsel humility, because people are fallible.” Hume and Hayek stress, “The limitations of knowledge that hinder individuals who try to reshape and control society…in a world that is highly complex and interconnected.”

Change agents can obscure the risks associated with their temerity through the language of urgency. A Nation At Risk compared our schools’ stagnating performance to an act of war. Secretary of Duncan conceded his reforms should’ve taken 10 to 15 years but said, “I just don’t think our kids can wait that long.” Even conservative icon Barry Goldwater couldn’t avoid the rhetoric of urgency: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

I have to wonder, what would our decisions look like should we require that dispositional conservatives be part of the discussion when massive, swift reforms—like blended learning, Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, and educator evaluation systems—are being considered? Would changes be slower, more thoughtful, more careful, and more sustainable?

When big change is needed

Conservatism can seek to slow change—in the words of philosopher Michael Oakeshott, to restrain, deflate, pacify, and reconcile. But conservatives understand that change is often essential.

Burke wrote that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Huntington wrote of the necessity of acquiescing to change. This, the authors note, reveals itself in a “governance of incrementalism.” A trial-and-error mindset combined with course corrections and checks and balances produce gradual, robust improvements.

But here lies my problem. In some cases, incrementalism is the enemy. When things are intolerably unjust, massive, swift changes are required. Slowly ending slavery or slowly providing women’s suffrage is delaying and therefore denying justice. After nearly a century of unsuccessful incrementalism, segregation was ended through dramatic federal action. The founding fathers smartly went radical in 1776 and 1787.

The big question becomes, “When should we trust longstanding institutions and gradual change and when is big and fast appropriate?” Though the Wallach and Myers article excels at many things, here it leaves me dangling, only offering, “Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem.”

Conclusion

Like I said in the first installment, I don’t have this all figured out yet. But for right now, here’s what’s on my mind:

  • Why doesn’t ed reform seem to appreciate dispositional conservatism?
  • Why doesn’t ed reform ever discuss what should be preserved?
  • I wish my progressive friends appreciated the trouble with technocratic change.
  • Is there a compelling dispositionally conservative response to tragic, longstanding K–12 injustices, like the ongoing failure of urban districts?

This is the second in Andy Smarick's series on whether education reform is anti-conservative. Find the first article here.

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