This Way Up

It is impossible for a city to flourish without excellent schools.
— John Engler

A few weeks ago, I attended “This way up: Economic mobility for poor and middle-class Americans,” a D.C. conference hosted by Opportunity America and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). It was evident by the close of the conference that the solution to reducing poverty and increasing opportunity in America must center on education reform and cultural renewal. After listening to numerous speakers and panels, I was convinced more than ever that Cana Academy holds a key part of the solution.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan opened the day’s presentations, bringing energy to the room and raising ideas that would be echoed throughout the rest of the day. However, it was in a panel following Ryan’s talk that I heard the quotation that opens this post. John Engler of the Business Roundtable was making a claim that gets at an essential part of what Cana Academy does: Too much time and attention are currently spent on innovation within education reform--that is, looking for the “next best thing” in teaching. A perfect example of this is the Common Core curricula widely adopted in public and parochial schools. Engler would rather see schools focus on reaching the standard set by the best we can achieve right now. That is, educators should look nationwide for the most successful schools and emulate those schools before attempting to innovate.

He may not realize it, but, in urging schools to follow the best standards available today, Engler is calling for a return to classical education. To cite just two examples, according to recent data from the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, classical schools nationwide are performing at higher levels than their public counterparts on the SAT and PSAT; and U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 100 high schools in the country features several classical schools.

The call for better education did not end there. Later, Charles Murray of AEI sat down for a conversation with Opportunity America’s Tamar Jacoby. Murray drew a direct correlation between cultural and workforce decline. Prior to the 1960s, he explained, men experienced social and communal pressure to follow a certain life trajectory: graduate high school (if not college), get a job, and then, and only then, marry and have children. After the sexual revolution, this pressure faded dramatically when men no longer felt required to marry; working class men lost the motivation to follow that trajectory and, therefore, stopped seeking employment. In other words, the cultural degradation brought about by the sexual revolution created an environment that fostered unemployment and eventual poverty.

What are Murray’s solutions to these critical problems? The first one he posited was better K-12 schools. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate, but other conference speakers would help fill the void he left.

Secondly, Murray does not think that anyone in the U.S. knows yet how to successfully achieve reform on a mass scale, claiming that even small, effective programs do not work nearly as well when scaled up. While not a solution, per se, his statement made me ponder how widespread reform might be achieved. Perhaps the best method would not be a scaling up but rather a spreading out: a proliferation of small programs rooted in a central mission to renew culture.

In the end, Murray said the solution to reducing cultural and economic differences between upper and working class people boils down to this: Members of the new upper class need to be better neighbors to their fellow citizens. However, this charge still begs the question, How?

It would be several hours before I heard anyone address this question. In the meantime, the following breakout session was one I had been waiting for all day: “School Days.”  

The panel’s moderator, John Bailey of Bailey Strategies, began the conversation with a thesis of sorts: On the one hand, K-12 schools in the U.S. are struggling. According to Pew Research, when it comes to math and science, U.S. high-school freshmen are outranked by the corresponding international cohort; and domestically, although math proficiency is up, performance is leveling off. On the other hand, education seems to be more necessary now than ever for achieving some measurable success in American society.

According to AEI’s own Andy Smarick, school choice is at the heart of education reform. As we approach the 2020’s, we now seem to be at an endpoint of the “accountability” movement begun in the 1990’s. Accountability has never succeeded at closing poor schools, whereas school choice has, especially with the rise of charter schools. In other words, parental choice is the new dominant factor in education policy. This thesis resonates with those of us in the classical education movement--from families that homeschool to the growing number of small, private classical schools that provide a significant, cultural alternative to mainstream educational options.

Smarick claimed that the key to education reform is decentralization and subsidiarity. Not only must policymakers support school choice, they must push reform to the state and family level. For example, the charter school funding legislation of the past twenty years has been tremendously effective and has provided a channel for federal regulation with a light touch.

After the panel, I asked Smarick what he thinks the role of classical education will be in  advancing education reform. While he had little to say on this point, he told me something interesting and, I think, hopeful for the classical movement: When he was working in northern New England, he noticed that while many on the left derided homeschooling, the truth was that about half of the homeschoolers were liberal voters. This points again to a growing bipartisan undercurrent of parents which recognizes that what is offered right now in American K-12 education is inadequate. These parents have decided to take matters into their own hands. 

To close the day, we heard from J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, who gave some brief remarks and then sat down to be interviewed by William Kristol. Having grown up as one of the “hillbillies” of the book’s title, J.D. Vance is a counterexample to the claim that children who have underprivileged childhoods are doomed to perpetual poverty and failure.

Vance claimed that the primary mistake of policy-makers is the inability to think of culture as an independent variable that should be used not to judge but to understand. Policy-makers, he said, tend to fail at understanding the challenges faced by a significant portion of America. Vance’s concern is that it is difficult to be in touch with the poor without living with them. Housing segregation by class allows many people to remain out of touch with their fellow Americans.

For example, for the poor, school reform means not so much better teachers or more money, as the left tend to think. Nor, however, does it merely mean better school choice--the conservative solution. Vance claimed that such solutions are, to a certain extent, out of touch with the plight of poor children, many of whom head off to school in the morning worrying more about their parents’ drug addiction than about the quality of education they are receiving. This points to a broader cultural problem that must be addressed even before educational plans: in this case, drug addiction.

Understandably, Vance’s bold statements led Kristol to raise the question: If the conventional liberal and conservative education reforms are not the most helpful solutions, what are? Vance’s answer was multi-layered. Primarily he pointed out that, as things stand now, poor children who make it all the way to high-school graduation perceive two choices: They could get a low-paying job that will not help raise them out of poverty, or they could get an expensive four-year degree that effectively alienates them from their community. What if there was a third choice? As Ryan and others had earlier in the day, Vance raised the prospect of Career Technical Education (CTE) as a valid option.

Vance’s concerns reminded me of two things: Charles Murray’s call to be “better neighbors to the poor” and our belief here at Cana Academy that we must see Christ in and be Christ to each other. If we as Americans--and as Christians--are serious about improving the lives of the poor and building a better culture in our nation, we must hold schools to a higher standard--the classical standard--and we must provide opportunities for those on the outskirts of society to partake in the best culture, culture that follows in the footsteps of both Socrates and Christ.

Furthermore, education and culture must go hand in hand. Preparing children for the workplace (i.e., Common Core’s aspiration) is not enough. We must provide them with a rich cultural foundation as well, and we must draw their parents into that culture. Whether this means founding schools, running community seminars, or incorporating classical seminars into CTE, Cana Academy has the tools to bring about effective change.


Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman is Operations Manager, Web Master, and Artistic Director for Cana Academy.