Culture & Society

There’s More to K-12 Education Than the Culture Wars

Americans generally agree on which education priorities are most important to them

Most Americans agree on their most important educational priorities, such as flexibility in learning approaches. Image Credit: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Many take it as fact that a political fault line runs through K-12 education, pitting left against right on another battleground in the nation’s culture wars. But while partisan lines certainly exist, focusing on these dividing lines distorts what post-pandemic Americans actually think about and want from K-12 education. Surprisingly, most Americans—of all ages and political persuasions—have a shared understanding of the problems facing K-12 education and what to do about them.

Domestic Realists in Education

Rather than persist in the collective illusion of irreconcilable disagreements, we should recognize the education landscape’s ideological heartland. This term, coined by the American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Streeter, describes a state of mind rather than a physical location. The “ideological heartland” is where domestic realists live, the terrain of those not given to ideological political extremes. Domestic realists may lean left or right or be part of that forgotten group called moderates, but they care more for practical action than culture-war posturing.

The narrative of deeply entrenched disagreement on K-12 issues might lead us to think of domestic realists as a small minority. On the contrary, roughly two-thirds of Americans live in this ideological heartland. By comparison, less than a quarter of Americans are staunch progressives or conservatives living at the edges of the political spectrum, immersed in the culture wars.

“The American public is not nearly as partisan or polarized as you’ve been told,” writes Anthony Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “Most Americans . . . on most issues [are] somewhere in the middle.”

This is not to say that domestic realists are indifferent to the hot-button issue positions that occupy the fringes. They are just less intense in their beliefs. In other words, they “favor” or “oppose” a stance on an issue rather than “strongly” favor or oppose it. Domestic realists believe they can disagree with others and live in relative harmony without waging ideological warfare. 

Recognizing Collective Illusions

Collective illusions” are an interesting social phenomenon in which people assume a gap between their private beliefs and those of the general public. This frequently leads people to override their private beliefs in deference to this perceived societal judgment. For example, one might think, “I value time with my family more than career advancement, but I know all my co-workers put career first. So I will conceal my preference for family and act as if my priorities match those of my colleagues.” But perhaps one’s colleagues secretly feel the same way. In short, a collective illusion occurs when individuals adjust their private beliefs to match the perceived status quo—even though those private beliefs are in fact widely shared.

Collective illusions are widespread in today’s education discussions. They conceal the basis for a broad K-12 governing agenda and reform coalition. Populace, a Massachusetts nonprofit, has documented Americans’ K-12 collective illusions using interviews and focus groups to identify 57 attributes describing the purposes of K-12 education, from which Populace created a Purpose of Education Index.

One such collective illusion is that most people favor flexibility in learning approaches far more than they think the general public does. Those surveyed ranked “giving students options to choose courses they want to study” 9 and “giving students whatever time they need to learn a new concept or skill” 13 among their personal priorities, versus perceived societal rankings of 31 and 52, respectively. So, while Americans give high ranks to attributes related to individualized learning, they believe others rank these attributes in the bottom half of the 57.

One of the largest collective illusions about K-12 goals concerns ensuring students can demonstrate character, as evidenced through qualities such as being honest and kind, having integrity and acting ethically. For the four years that Populace has surveyed Americans, the perceived societal ranking of demonstrating character has been somewhere in the middle, with its current rank 26 out of the 57 tested attributes. But Americans consistently rank it as a top 10 personal priority.

The Ideological Heartland’s Consensus on K-12 Education

Here are five starting points for creating a commonsense governing agenda for K-12 education. I base them on the work of Populace and other polling, along with statements about K-12 education from 2022 gubernatorial candidates and 2023 gubernatorial state-of-the-state addresses.

1. Americans say K-12 is a top 2023 issue and schools need a priority reset.

A bipartisan poll of 2022 midterm voters (including 600 voters from the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) reports that one of their top 2023 priorities for state lawmakers is “improving K-12 education” (72%), and it is the most important priority in battleground states. And 63% of general voters say they would cross party lines to vote for a party they have not previously supported if that party’s education policies aligned with theirs. Meanwhile, approximately half of general voters and 49%-60% of parent voters say that state and local public schools are “on the wrong track.” 75% believe students are mostly still behind in school.

It thus makes sense that, as Populace reports, Americans want a reset for K-12 education that prioritizes helping young people to “develop practical skills” aimed at real-world proficiency and success. This should include being able to “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character” and “demonstrate basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Currently, only 26% of respondents think schools actually do this. Unsurprisingly, an Echelon Insights survey reports that 56% of respondents want schools to rethink how they educate children and create new ways to teach children.

2. Voters want more parental control, agree on priorities and generally endorse creating more education options.

64% of general voters believe “parents should have more control” over what public schools teach. This consensus is strongest among Republicans (93%), Independents (70%) and parents (70%), while 64% of Democrats disagree. 46% of voters say schools need to make “bold changes and adopt new ways of doing things” to get students on track.

More than three in four general voters across parties—including in battleground states—say four issues from a list of 12 are “very important”: ensuring every child is on track (86%); hiring and retaining high-quality teachers (81%); offering more career education and real-world learning (75%) and improving school security and safety (74%). 53% also support increasing existing budgets for schools if funds follow students to “where they receive their education.” 69% of general voters, including a majority (51%) of Democrats, support creating more school options, including charter schools, private schools and homeschooling.

3. Americans are no longer captivated by the value of a college degree.

The Populace results show that “getting kids ready for college” has dropped from a pre-pandemic 10th place among priorities to 47 out of 57. Another survey documents that 74% of Gen Z youth agree that “I want to learn skills that prepare me for jobs that will be in demand.” And still another survey shows that 28% of seniors from the graduating class of 2022 changed their post-high school plans since the pandemic began, up from 18% in a previous 2020 survey.

Relatedly, a Gallup survey reports that seven in 10 Americans believe that employers should hire job candidates based on skills and experience instead of requiring a college degree, though fewer than half say that their employers do so.

The Populace poll confirms what other polling reports: 52% of Americans believe higher education is headed in the “wrong direction,” while only 20% believe it’s headed in the “right direction.” 67% of Americans believe that colleges put their institutional interest first, while hardly anyone believes that colleges put first either students (5%) or the greater good (4%).

This finding dovetails with another: Current Gen Z high schoolers don’t see college through the same rose-colored glasses as prior generations. Five national surveys conducted between February 2020 and January 2022 found that in January 2022, around half (51%) of high schoolers plan to attend a four-year college, 20 percentage points down from a 71% high in May 2020. Nearly one-third prefer post-high school educational experiences of two years or less rather than the traditional four-year college experience. And a strong majority of employers (68%) and Gen Z people (58%) agree that organizations should hire individuals from non-degree pathways.

4. Americans want a personalized approach to education that includes more education pathways.

The Purpose of Education Index reports that Americans place a high priority on giving students the unique support they need (ranked 5 out of 57) rather than giving each student the same level of support (34) or requiring uniformity in studying the same courses (54). The American people are strong believers in mastery learning, where students advance to the next task or assignment after demonstrating that they have mastered a subject (7). These priorities are not reflected in the one-size-fits-all tendencies of the present education system. Hence 71% of respondents say more things should change in the education system than stay the same, with 21% saying everything should change.

Increased breadth of opportunity is desired at every level of the education system. A Tyton Partners survey reports that more than 70% of parents are interested in new programs, both within and outside of school, that offer a range of outcomes and produce a well-rounded education for their children. Most parents (59%) in this survey focus on academic achievement as their greatest aspiration for school-based education, with 52% saying out-of-school experiences should develop a young person’s passion for a specific subject and cultivate a strong sense of self.

Similarly, an American Compass survey reports that 85% of parents “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available for my child,” with strong support for non-college career pathways after high school. These include support for pathways programs such as a three-year apprenticeship after high school leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.”

5. The nation’s governors share a K-12 governing agenda.

Among the 72 candidates who ran for governor in 2022, a shared set of education priorities emerged. Two issues tied for first place out of 27: expanding career and technical education (CTE) programs and increasing school funding, endorsed by 42% of the candidates. Four other issues have support from at least 25% of the candidates: school choice (33%); expanding pre-K (31%); raising teacher pay (26%) and reforming curricula (26%).

Along similar lines, an issue analysis of the 2023 gubernatorial state-of-the-state addresses found that CTE, teaching quality and school finance ranked “among the most popular” K-12 issues the governors mentioned. A majority of governors also voiced support for early learning and child care. Other “hot topics this year” included student health, school choice and safety.

This consensus offers a K-12 agenda for the nation’s governors. The two most prominent issues for the majority of Americans are expanding CTE and increasing school funding. Other popular issues include boosting child care and early learning, raising teacher pay and providing families and students with more educational options.

Implementation Pluralism

While Americans will continue to disagree on hot-button culture-war issues, this should not distract us from overcoming our collective illusions about K-12 education. Voters and the nation’s governors generally agree on a set of K-12 governing ideas. Domestic realist leaders thus have an opportunity to mobilize a K-12 stakeholder coalition on legislative programs linked to these “heartland” issues.

But the broad agreement in the ideological heartland does not imply uniformity. Even with some consensus, the give-and-take of crafting and negotiating state legislative proposals will produce programs and priorities that differ by state.

For example, in one state, more school funding may go to increasing teacher pay. In another state, it might entail starting or expanding child care and early learning programs. A third state could create education savings accounts that parents can use for private school tuition or supplemental tutoring for children in traditional district public schools. Still another state may use more funding for several purposes, as is being suggested in Oklahoma—where a new legislative proposal would allow parents to claim up to $5,000 in annual credits for tuition, tutoring and curriculum expenses for a child enrolled in private school ($2,500 for homeschooled children), while also providing $500 million in additional grants, salary increases and other funding for traditional public schools.

This implementation pluralism allows states and local communities to test and refine laws and policies over time. In the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel societal and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

To seize this very real opportunity for coalition-building in the ideological heartland, we must overcome the collective illusions concerning our divisions. We can forge a new K-12 political coalition of domestic realists who have a practical set of governing ideas based on everyday concerns shared by most Americans.

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. Some of the organizations and survey reports mentioned in this piece were given financial support by the Walton Family Foundation.

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