Two recent developments in New York City’s public schools highlight the perils of current progressive education theory and foretell a radical transformation. The first episode got close to no response from conservative thinkers, and the second received an insufficient one. Just as they do in economics, law, and politics, conservatives need to have theories about the education process. Promoting school choice, the typical conservative approach, is no longer enough. We need alternative theories about how learning occurs and what the purpose of school is.
The first incident was the revelation that the vast majority of students at more than 40 public schools in New York City had received passing report-card grades, but less than a fifth could pass the statewide math and English exams in grades three to eight. In an especially egregious school, every student received a passing grade, but only 7 percent could pass the state English exam. Even though these students, numbering in the thousands, failed the exams, they will matriculate into the next grade. In response to the public outcry over this news, the Department of Education spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said, “It’s apples and oranges to compare students’ classroom grades over the course of a full school year with their performance on a two-day state exam.” This is nothing less than an argument for invalidating all standardized test results as a measure of learning.
The more famous second development was the recommendation of the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) in August 2019 to end programs for gifted students in New York City public schools. To increase racial diversity in gifted programs, SDAG proposed switching to the “schoolwide enrichment” model for gifted students. In this way, the panel claims, gifted programs can be more “inclusive” without causing anyone’s education to suffer. While the schoolwide-enrichment model is not being implemented immediately, Carranza is laying the groundwork to move forward with it. “You can’t point to a specific pedagogy or a specific curriculum,” he said on public radio, complaining that the gifted programs differ across the city. “It’s just faster and more. That can’t be what ‘gifted and talented’ is in the biggest school system in the nation.”
While the SDAG proposal received much more publicity, the policy that allows students to matriculate despite very poor test results will harm many more students. Conservatives are under the impression that the discrepancy between grade level and skill is due to grade inflation and that the attempt to end the gifted programs is based on identity politics. There is some truth in that, but both developments are primarily based on current education theory.
Instead of grade inflation, teachers are relying on an education model called “differentiated instruction,” which adjusts a student’s curriculum based on his readiness, learning style, gender, and culture. This educational approach mandates personalized curricular changes that will ensure a passing grade, based on the criteria of student readiness and “meeting students where they are.” If a teacher believes that a student invested sufficient effort, then the student will pass. These curricular adjustments are not identified on the report card, so on paper it looks as if all students passed the same curriculum. In fact, one student could have read Ramona the Pest while another read To Kill a Mockingbird. Both would have received “A”s for a seventh-grade book report. But only the latter student could pass the state exam.
In recommending the “schoolwide-enrichment model,” SDAG was promoting an alternative method for teaching gifted students. The theory was developed by Joseph S. Renzulli and Sally Reis of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. The theory has a “broadened conception of giftedness,” and “the centerpiece of the model is the development of differentiated learning experiences that take into consideration each student’s abilities, interests, learning styles, and preferred styles of expression,” Renzulli and Reis write. This enables the development of “talents in all children.”
If differentiated instruction and the schoolwide-enrichment model sound very similar, it’s because they are. They almost completely overlap. Renzulli has incorporated the term “differentiation” in his writing since it has gained more popularity. Both theories are rooted in the anti-elitist and progressive idea “that all students can learn at a high level,” as the “School Design Specifications” for Renzulli Academy puts it, drawing on the notion that some types of intelligence are linguistic, others logical, and still others visual. The job of the teacher is to figure out the right way to foster high-level learning in each student. He may try to teach math to the linguistically oriented student using more word problems than mathematical notations, as if these would produce equal results.
The response of most conservatives thus far has not focused enough on the problems inherent in the schoolwide-enrichment model. The proper response begins with studies demonstrating that differentiation and the schoolwide-enrichment model are ineffective. A 2008 study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest determined that teachers’ employment of methods that cater to different “learning styles” does not raise student achievement. Even more damaging, in 2017, the International Journal of Inclusive Education published a three-year meta-analysis of empirical research on “inclusive” teaching and concluded that “differentiation” does not improve learning outcomes.
Instead, these now fashionable theories provide a façade of learning. In the instance of New York City students receiving passing grades but failing state tests, we see that the students learned the material only in the teacher-shaped environment and could not demonstrate it in another setting, such as that of taking an exam. The precipitous rise of the high-school-graduation rate in the United States has not been accompanied by more student learning or increased university-graduation rates. These theories even correlate with lower levels of learning: The highest-achieving countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment do not use differentiated instruction or the schoolwide-enrichment model.
When the SDAG recommendation is implemented, classrooms will be more inclusive and diverse, but students will not be learning more. Academic diversity in a classroom cannot lead to the same level of learning as a dedicated gifted program within a separate environment can, and with a separate staff and budget. A classroom comprising a wide range of learners will divide the teacher’s time — the most precious educational resource.
Progressive educators nonetheless still advocate these approaches and cite research to corroborate them. This is because their supporting studies do not look at academic outcomes. Instead, the research showing “success” looks at student motivation, student values, classroom management, and engagement. One study cited in the SDAG report uses almost exclusively, as a measure of success, the student’s ability to enroll in or access a course. The study notes the positive impact on test scores, but it does so in just two paragraphs and in broad strokes. We therefore don’t know what would be evident in a more thorough analysis of the effects of differentiated instruction and the schoolwide-enrichment model on academic outcomes. My guess is that it would demonstrate that the top tier of students did not achieve at the same heights as previously, even while some lower-level students earned higher scores.
For followers of the past two decades of educational theory, Carranza’s approach is expected. Schools of education, according to Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson, are the most progressive of all graduate schools. Half a century ago, schools used tracking and assigned students to classes according to their ability. Some students were placed in more-advanced classes, others at a college-preparatory level, while another group had a curriculum just to meet state graduation requirements. Progressives’ inclination to equalize has led them to dismantle tracking, with the result that many schools now purposely set up mixed-ability classrooms. Schools increasingly pride themselves on their diversity and inclusion. Differentiation is used to manage the wide range of students and also promote it. Over 80 percent of teachers are trained to teach in a mixed-ability setting, and tens of thousands of education articles and conference presentations have been devoted to the notions of differentiation and diversity.
For progressives, the first principle of education is that teaching is primarily about providing care and removing harm. Progressives therefore focus on improving students’ engagement, access, and motivation. Unequal outcomes harm, since they set up hierarchies in which some benefit and others are denied opportunity. “Fairness” is meant to ensure parity.
Differentiation ignores the other factors that affect student success, such as crime rates and growing up in a single-parent household. Schools of education view their primary responsibility not as imparting the best methods of teaching but as training teachers to structure classes properly, especially along gender and racial lines.
The conservative educational approach begins with a different first principle: independence. The purpose of school is to impart the skills that students will need to succeed and be self-sufficient later on. For conservatives, therefore, the factor that matters in educational research is academic outcomes or students’ competence.
Progressives believe that learning will occur when the teacher accurately adjusts the system or environment, whereas conservatives orient learning to the intellectual growth of the student, which occurs internally. The widespread grade–skill discrepancy in New York City public schools embodies the progressive mindset: Thousands of students received passing grades and were saved from the immediate harm of failure. They could demonstrate their learning in an environment that the teacher tailored to meet this goal. For conservatives, on the other hand, learning is real only if it can be applied to unexpected situations. That is the demonstration of independence.
The same holds true of gifted programs. Progressives think that equitable access to these programs is mostly the responsibility of the programs themselves. Conservatives look to the student to get himself into a gifted program.
At a deeper level, care and independence suggest opposite educational methods. The former is needed when an individual cannot act on his own. Of course, teaching independence is a gradual process in which parents and teachers remove support as a child gets older. In educational parlance, balancing care and independence is “scaffolding” and “teaching in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.” Knowing the right amount of support to provide or remove, however, is not obvious and requires some trial and error. When students struggle, which they constantly do, the progressive inclines toward more support, while the conservative is predisposed to let the student figure it out. The teacher’s instinct makes a large difference in the long run, where the gap between dependent and independent students becomes quite large.
Just as Carranza’s education department ignored the standardized tests that it had promoted as educationally sound, so too progressives will aim to eliminate or disregard standardized tests. In order to increase racial diversity, an increasing number of universities no longer require SATs, ACTs, or GREs. The College Board recently attempted to have it both ways by keeping its regular, objective score for each student taking its standardized tests but supplementing it with an “adversity score.” (After an onslaught of criticism, it relented.)
The metrics used by standardized tests guide charter schools in attaining better educational outcomes than public schools do. This is why school choice currently suffices to improve education. Were the tests to disappear, teachers would probably fully implement the theories of differentiated instruction and schoolwide enrichment that they were trained in. Liberal-arts colleges provide an instructive example. Graduating high-school seniors have many colleges to choose from, but a widespread metric to measure the learning of college graduates no longer exists. So colleges have been adding lighter majors, dismantling reading requirements, and competing over amenities.
To prevent a progressive educational dystopia, conservatives need to develop independence-focused theories about the process and goals of learning. This will allow them to respond as educational insiders, while also clarifying the right way to improve America’s schools.
This article appears as “The Conservative and Progressive Theories of Education” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.