K-12 Education Viewed Through the Lens of Conservative Values & World-View

Note: this is the second in a series of posts on the effect of conservative & progressive values on K-12 education.

Progressive values should set the ideals of teaching, and learning in American society.  Unfortunately, the “cloud of authoritarianism looms over education, making it very difficult to design instruction around progressive values.  We’ll refer to those who support this latter view as the “authoritarians.”

In order to understand the authoritarianism that has claimed schooling in America, we can glean insights into the effectiveness of this approach by using the values that conservatives use to frame their issues, and make their policy decisions. As George Lakoff says,  “radical conservatives have taken over the reins of government and have been controlling the terms of political debate for many years” (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 131-133). Macmillan. Kindle Edition).

Conservative World View

“World view refers to the culturally-dependent, generally subconscious, fundamental organization of the mind,” according to William W. Cobern, who has done extensive research on world-view and how it impinges science teaching.  Ones world view predisposes one to feel, think and act in predictable way, according to Cobern.  World-view inclines one to a particular way of thinking.

In my argument about trying to explain the current state of schooling in the U.S., we will look at two different political and social world-views, the conservative world-view, and the progressive world-view.  Both world-views have played significant roles in American history, including public education.  In this post we’ll examine the conservative world-view and how it has affected the way in which public schools determine curriculum, hold schools accountable for achievement of its students, and the effectiveness of schools and teachers.

According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family.  Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs.  Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here).  In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth.  The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family.  Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”.  In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view.  As we look around us, and especially when we examine schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view.  Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute,  the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The public schools in the U.S. reflect the core values of authority and discipline, and many of the laws and acts (especially the NCLB Act of 2001) was written by the authority of the government, and set in motion an image that suggests that students, teachers and administrators are siblings in the Family of Education, and are beholden to the Authority of Federal and State departments of education.  It’s a top-down system, and conceptual metaphor of the “Strict Father Family” mirrors the way public schools are conceptualized.

K-12 Issues Seen from a Conservative World-View

Using the conservative world-view lets examine a few issues in K-12 education. There are many issues that we could choose to analyze by applying the conservative world-view.  What follows is an analysis of accountability, the Atlanta Erasure Scandal, and using VAM to evaluate teachers.


In the conservative approach to teaching and learning, hierarchical rules were established to make the nation’s schools and districts conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments.  In the initial installment of the NCLB Act of 2001, terms such as accountability for schools, adequate yearly progress and getting results were used to discuss the way schools would be evaluated.

Teachers would agree that they should be accountable for their work by creating learning environments in which students are successful.  However, accountability in its present form means that student test scores will be used as the measure of accountability.  Using an arbitrary level of performance, yearly progress will be based on student scores, and these in turn will be used to reward or punish schools, as well as individual teachers and administrators.   The “strict father family” model shines a light how standards and assessments are used to judge student learning, and teacher performance.  Learning and performance will be adequate (good) or inadequate (bad or see as failure), and students, if they are inadequate, will be retained, or forced to take summer classes, and then tested again, and teachers will be evaluated using their student’s scores, and then appropriate rewards and punishments handed out.

Accountability in the conservative world-view derives from an authority, and what the authority determines is success. In general the authority  of the state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time.  It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests.  Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

Atlanta Cheating Scandal

In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.

What happened in Atlanta?  Why did so many teachers and administrators cheat when they knew that they were being monitored by the Georgia Department of Education? Does the conservative world-view shed light on the cheating scandal?

According to the Georgia Governor’s  three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.”  That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.

In the years leading up to the time that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crack investigative team released its report on the suspicious test erasures, the Georgia Department of Education assigned specialists to work closely with Atlanta administrators and teachers by providing staff development training, especially in schools that were identified by testing as “Needs Improvement.”  Many of these schools saw their student’s test scores go up over several years. Did these scores go up because of cheating, or because of the professional support the schools received from the Georgia Department of Education?

According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.

If we could find out who or what perpetuated the culture of fear, it might help us understand why wide-spread cheating took place. (Note: I do not use this case to single out the Atlanta School System; the evidence from various reports is that cheating has taken place in many other cities around the country; nor do I condone the cheating).

However, there are questions to ask.

Was it the former superintendent of Atlanta that created the culture of fear?  Or did the culture of fear spread to the Atlanta School System from the Georgia Department of Education?  Could the annual testing cycle and the stakes that are placed on student test scores create a culture of fear in a district?

If we assume that the Department of Education is the authority in determining what students should learn in schools across the state, and also the authority in determining how the student’s performance will be judged, then one way of looking at education in Georgia is from a conservative lens.  In the conservative view, the state, acting as the  authority figure,  holds school districts, and schools accountable based on high-stakes achievement test scores of its students.

Rewards and punishments are handed out each year.  Those schools that meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYI)–using attendance and test scores, are considered successful; those schools that do not meet AYI, are considered unsuccessful.  If a school fails AYI for several years in a row they enter into “corrective action,” which could lead to the take over of the school, or the firing of all of the teachers.

What does this scandal tell us about the conservative world view?

VAM Scores & the Bad Teacher

For several years now, there has been wide-scale movement to blame the so-called “failure” of K-12 schools on teachers.  In the conservative world-view, one can rationalize punishing family members who are not pulling their weight in getting a particular job done.  In the case of K-12 schooling, the authority of the state looks out over the landscape of schools, and wonders how schools can be improved.  We’ve already established that the authority believes that improving student test scores is the most important goal for K-12 schooling, and the authority instituted an assessment plan beginning in third-grade whereby all students are tested in “basic skills” of math and English/language arts, and in some states additional subjects.

According to the conservative world-view, the teacher is the major contributor of student learning, and all teachers “add value” to student learning, and in the conservative view, the “value the adds to student progress can be measured and used to judge the effectiveness of individual teachers.  The value-added measure (VAM) is used to jugde teacher effectiveness.

The conservative world-view of using VAM scores is marching across the country from one state-house to another.  Some states are using VAM scores to determine as much as 60% of the annual evaluation of teachers.  States that received Race to the Top Funds have no choice.  Right here, where I live, the Georgia Department of Education (Georgia was a RTTT winner!) is experimenting with a form of a VAM score to evaluate teachers that not only involves student test scores, but also classroom observations by school administrators.  Early reports reveal that it will be nearly impossible for administrators to sit in the classrooms of all of their teachers—twice a year!

From a conservative world-view, using VAM scores is a good idea.  The VAM scores can be used to “weed” the ineffective teachers out of the classroom, and if we replace them with more effective teachers, bingo, student test scores will shoot up to the stars.

The problem is the system is not valid, and research studies have shown that it is consistently unreliable in predicting teachers VAM scores.  Anthony Cody wrote an important post on VAM, and showed that when people actually looked deeply at the data that had been published in New York on teachers VAM scores, the results were really not what the conservative actors in education would like. As Cody pointed out, even proponents of VAM such as Bill Gates were reluctant to support public release of VAM scores, nor are these scores enough to really get at effective teaching.

But we have to ask why would we want to use unreliable measures in evaluating teachers?  The conservative argument gives us a very good reason.  The “strict father family” is based on authority and discipline.  If you listen to governors who support the use of VAM, they talk as if they were the “father” of education in the state, and they are going to reward and punish teachers (siblings) if they get out of line, or do not perform to the expectations of the state.

Next Steps

We can look at K-12 education using the conservative lens, and I hope that this post gives you some food for thought.  In the next post, I am going to look at the same issues, but from a progressive world-view.  Stay tuned in.

Do you think that the conservative world-view is the dominant player in K-12 education today?  To what degree do you agree or disagree with this view?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University