OPINION | How conservatives create an education crisis


Conservatives claim public schools are failing because greedy teachers are failing to teach. It’s a highly emotional, seductively resonant argument that creates both villain and problem. There’s just one problem: it’s false. Conservative policy advocates are manufacturing a crisis, finding failure in a forest of success.

I’ve spent a great deal of my life in and around education. I’ve been a K-12, undergraduate and grad student. My mom is a teacher. My grandmother taught in a one-room school. My sister is a Dean of Students. I have school-aged children. I’ve worked in higher ed. I’m deeply familiar with education’s structure and systems.

Through it all, I’ve learned two essential lessons. First, education is an extremely labor-intensive business with no shortcuts or quick fixes. Second, and this is perhaps the most critical, I know that I don’t know squat about education. What I have, like everyone, is opinion shaped by limited experience. Conservative policy advocates are manipulating our perspectives, purposefully undermining public support for public education.

We are all education experts because we’ve all been to school. We have complex relationships with learning, largely rooted in our student years. I can unhesitatingly identify Walnut Grove High School’s 1977-1981 shortcomings. Yet, time, experience and maturity have given me a considerably nuanced perspective on my student experience, blunting earlier judgments.

Conservative educational policy messaging wants me to feel angry. If I’m angry then I readily lose my balanced perspective, making it easier to assign blame. Angry people don’t think rationally. They’re more likely to lash out in frustration which is conservative policy’s goal. Defunding costly public schools is more easily achieved in anger than in rational calm.

“No new taxes” conservative fiscal policy seeks to minimize the wealthiest Minnesotans’ tax burden while simultaneously permitting public investment’s benefits to accrue to that same population. This is pure greed. It’s a tough pitch to most Minnesotans who’ve traditionally benefitted from public investments in education and community services. Selling the unsellable, conservative policy advocates have mastered the magician’s art of misdirection.

Magicians create illusions, suggesting supernatural reasons for entirely conventional outcomes. The trick works because participant attention is shifted, however briefly, disguising an action. While the performer’s skill is important, the performer’s capacity for creating a compelling narrative is essential. A successful illusion hinges on a compelling story supporting the illusion by misdirecting the audience’s attention.

Conservative public school critics have masterfully positioned the “bad teacher” as the source of every educational shortcoming. It’s a triumph of inductive reasoning. It’s also a fallacy.

Inductive reasoning is the process by which generalized conclusions are drawn from limited specific observations. Too much weight is assigned to too few examples, leading to a false or inaccurate conclusion. Conservative policy advocates use this mechanism to give ineffective teaching greater negative outcome responsibility than the actual numbers merit.

Here’s how this argument works: In my high school, I had a bad teacher. In your high school, you also had a bad teacher. Therefore, all teachers must be bad teachers because you and I, in different times and places, had a bad teacher. This argument overweighs my perception of a bad teacher while minimizing the positive experiences I had with most teachers. By working to maximize a minority experience, conservative policy critics amplify fallacious reasoning. Suddenly, all teachers are reframed as bad teachers when nearly every teacher is, in fact, a good teacher.

In many regards, Minnesota education is a victim of its own success. Reflecting changing, turbulent times, we keep raising our expectations of our schools. We understand, all too well, that the world isn’t standing still. We need our schools to prepare students for a highly competitive, global marketplace future.

Contemplating the conservative attacks on public schools, let me suggest a different interpretive framework, supported by educational outcome data and by anecdote.

Minnesota public education is succeeding brilliantly. In return for a very modest public investment, Minnesota receives a highly productive, impressively capable work force. Minnesota public school students are better, smarter and more prepared than any previous generation of students. Minnesota’s teachers are uniformly the best teachers that Minnesota colleges have ever produced. They do more with fewer resources, in a complex, changing learning environment, than any generation of teachers have ever achieved.

We’ve been tricked into believing that a few problems negate extraordinary achievement. This misdirection highlights the difference between conservative and progressive educational policy. The conservative approach posits failure, finds it, then scapegoates teachers and undermines schools as policy responses. The progressive solution works problems, builds data to support insightful analysis and diligently seeks improved outcomes.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, particularly in education. But, I know a conservative boondoggle when I seek one. The conservative insistence on an educational crisis, combined with regular school funding cuts, creates a wholly predictable outcome: Minnesota schools won’t be able to educate kids for the future before them. Minnesota’s school challenges are real enough. We don’t need manufactured crisis complicating the situation. Only strong public schools will move Minnesota forward. Without a first-rate education, Minnesota will slide backwards, away from prosperity.