In what ways has education in America dramatically transformed over the past century?
How exactly is the Trump administration’s approach to education different from that of the Obama administration?
What has been behind the push for common core, and how has it affected the US education system?
Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek recently sat down with Williamson Evers, who served as head of the Trump transition team for the Department of Education. A decade ago, he served as the U.S. assistant secretary of education for policy, and is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
They discuss what Evers considers to be the greatest problems facing the education system in America today, including glaring omissions in today’s history textbooks, as well as the contemporary debate surrounding school choice.
Jan Jekielek: Bill Evers, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Williamson Evers: Pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: So Bill, you were actually the head of the group on the Trump transition team working with the Department of Education, as I understand it.
Mr. Evers: That’s right. After Trump was nominated, while he was a candidate, we had a team of people, half a dozen people chosen by me who reviewed the agency of the U.S. Department of Education. We were looking at policies that were going on there: what had the Obama people done, maybe even earlier administrations, that needed to be rectified, consistent with what the candidate had said. So the candidate had said that he didn’t want to have Common Core with a centralization of curriculum in the United States. And he had said he wanted school choice, parental choice, and various principles like this. He had also, throughout the campaign, said political correctness had gone just over the top in America. And so things had to be done to address the workings of the Department.
Mr. Jekielek: So that’s very fascinating. And this unique situation at the transition, you started working on some policies, presumably, that could be implemented later. Is that how it works?
Mr. Evers: So we were preparing as if we were going to win the election. But this is [was] at the very beginning of September after the National Convention in Cleveland. And so we had to think, we had to prepare possible things that the candidate would want to talk about during the campaign, but were essentially looking to when he is inaugurated if we win. So we had to go through all the legal cases pending against the Department. The Obama administration had sought more power at the highest levels of government to centralize and put things, that had been in localities and in the states, to put it in the federal government, and they would cloak this in the rhetoric of equality and racial fairness and things like this. But they were really grabbing power for people like themselves and taking it away from being close to the people and parents. And so the President’s approach was to reverse that and return power to the people.
Mr. Jekielek: So philosophically one of these things was this decentralization, power to the people. What were other philosophical underpinnings would you say?
Mr. Evers: Well, I think returning to essentially the constitutional feel that schools are supposed to be close to the people and creations of the state and not somehow micromanaged from Washington, D.C. And secondly, political correctness, which is the idea that we have some sort of elite morals that we’re going to impose on the general population, which [inaudible] morality, but it’s more of a common sense morality. And so this manifested itself under the Obama administration. So let’s say a student was accused of rape and was a college student. They had kangaroo courts with very low-evidence standards. So rape in the regular criminal law is a very serious crime, and it requires thorough-going compelling evidence. Well, they said, no, we’re going to just have very low-level evidence. So we propose reversing this. There were many, many people who were saying this was a travesty.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mr. Evers: I mean, the Harvard Law faculty. It was not just President Trump, but anyway, the Department has done this. It’s reversed this. It’s ended this, but it’s not doing it in a cavalier fashion. Rape is obviously a serious thing. You still want to treat it seriously. And I think the Department has maintained that balance. Another example is under the Obama administration, they were, at a federal level, micromanaging bathrooms on kindergarten through high school campuses.
And the Trump administration just ended that. Again, nobody’s civil rights should be violated. Nobody should be mistreated or given a bad experience in school. But, nonetheless, a local situation can handle this better than somebody in Washington, D.C., who’s just far away from the scene and what the actual people are like. So I just think that, there were many, many policies that had to be looked at, but we were trying always to think, in our transition team, what would President Trump want to do based on what he had said.
And we ended up writing, for the incoming secretary, Betsy DeVos, a 68-page report detailing all the problems, all the things that needed to be changed. I mean, some things were kind of just curiosities, like they loaded us with 200 interns that nobody knew about that had been picked by the Obama administration that would feel uncomfortable in the Trump administration. What to do? Some crazy things like that. But most of it was high-level important policies.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really interesting. So of course, candidate Trump did win.
Mr. Evers: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And things changed.
Mr. Evers: Right. So we had a special mechanism for that. So before he won, we’re like writing these policy briefs.
Mr. Jekielek: OK.
Mr. Evers: But once he won, we still had a little of that, but we went in and interviewed the senior bureaucrats, the senior officials in the Department and any remaining Obama appointees to find out what they were doing. The people involved, some of us had been in government before. And so we thought we knew where the bodies were buried, but of course, there’s lots of surprises. And most of the Obama people were like leaving the sinking ship. They were trying desperately to find new jobs. But the senior administrators were lifers. They were going to still be around, and we wanted to find out what they’ve been up to.
Mr. Jekielek: So what would be some—aside from the two examples that you just gave, outlining the philosophical change—what are some stark examples of real changes that were implemented subsequent to the—
Mr. Evers: Well, one thing that we can get into later in detail is the Obama administration had been promoting and subsidizing Common Core, which was a set of national curriculum standards. And, the Trump administration has severed any federal support for that. If some states want to adhere to this…
Mr. Jekielek: It’s their choice.
Mr. Evers: It’s their choice. But the Obama people heavily incentivized the states to do this and rhetorically said this is the greatest thing since sliced cheese and so forth.
Mr. Jekielek: So Common Core, of course, a very big shift.
Mr. Evers: It’s a big thing. Yeah.
Mr. Jekielek: And anything else that jumps to mind for you? Well, there are many different detailed things that have to do with school innovations, and it’s kind of in the weeds. I think another major shift was stronger support for school choice. It’s not that the Obama people didn’t have a certain amount of that, but they were kind of tinkering around the edges of it. And President Trump sought to bring this to the fore and allow parental choice, letting parents escape failing public schools, give that more emphasis.
He needs support from Congress for this. And Congress has [been] pretty inactive right now. I would say Secretary DeVos has done a tremendous job with the opportunities that executive action allows her, and they have other ideas about reconfiguring the Department and other things, but Congress is just sitting on its hands when it comes to education policy.
Mr. Jekielek: So tell me if I’m right here. The way that I understand it, the Obama-era policies tended towards more progressive philosophy, whereas the Trump administration policies tend towards more traditionalist philosophy. Would you say that’s accurate?
Mr. Evers: Well, I wouldn’t really say it that way. I would say, yes, it’s true that the Obama people supported progressive education, progressive politics, and a progressive style of education. I would say the Trump people are not trying to impose one way as the right way on all the schools across the country, whereas the Obama people have a tendency to do that. And even the Bush people had some, not as bad as Obama, but they had some technocratic field to them also. I was part of that, so I can testify. So just to explain what progressive education means as opposed to progressive politics. So with progressive politics, we’re talking about the rule of experts, technocrats centralizing, moving things at the local level, to the state level, and the state level to the federal level and so forth: we’re so brilliant, we can tell everybody—
Mr. Jekielek: Standardization, making it fair for everyone, right?
Mr. Evers: Yes, exactly. The name of that. Not necessarily actually make it fair, but that was the rhetorical cover. Progressive education—while it’s akin to that and shares technocratic features, shares “we’re the brilliant policy intellectuals that are going to tell everybody what to do”—it has a style of teaching that’s associated with it. And that is learn through play, learn through inquiry, learn through student self-discovery, and learn the content that interests the student. So this goes back to John Dewey at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. And another man who was a disciple of his named Kilpatrick, who was a professor at Columbia. They were both at Columbia.
So the alternative, just speaking in very broad-brush terms, is traditional education, there’s no really great name for it, but it’s more focused on learning the content that’s important to be a good citizen, to be successful in a commercial society like ours, passing on the wisdom of civilization and the tools to be economically successful.
And it’s a teacher-led classroom. So it’s presumed that the teacher knows more than the students. The progressives—this is a caricature—but they sometimes act as if the teacher’s getting wisdom from the students. I mean, I think that’s charming, maybe even funny, but wrong. So I think the traditionalist are more or less right. But I think we should also be thinking about what the facts are. So a field trip is a progressive type thing. The kids are out there experiencing something.
Mr. Jekielek: Because surely there is room for discovery.
Mr. Evers: Right! Of course, you need to think empirically, factually. What works? What is successful at getting the children to learn the material? And you want to go with that. You don’t want to be dogmatic—it has to be a lecture. No, it can be a variety of things. But do they work? And do they work at learning this necessary content. So that’s the difference in those two approaches.
Mr. Jekielek: Something you mentioned to me when we were speaking earlier, something that you were very concerned with was the idea of how the concept of restorative justice was implemented.
Mr. Evers: Right, so this actually gets me to another stark change. You were asking about stark changes. So the Obama administration had put in a situation with racial quotas in classroom discipline. And so the idea was, let’s say we have redheads and blondes and brunettes, whatever, a bunch of different kinds of people. And there’s disruption in the classroom. There’s fighting on the school field, there’s people taking people’s lunches, things that happen.
Mr. Jekielek: Things that happen.
Mr. Evers: Things that happen. These are children. All right. So you want to have some kind of discipline, and so the Obama people had said, well, if it turns out you’re punishing the redheads a lot compared to their numbers in the population, you have to stop that. The redheads can only be punished accordingly to their population quota, OK? And the Trump people said—and I think a lot of civil liberties people would say this—that that’s not right.
Mr. Evers: You should teach the rule of law. The whole meaning of the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudential and many other concepts of justice around the world—might I say Confucian—is to treat people according to the merits of their actual behavior. And I think that’s right. And so related to this idea of race-based justice or something like that that some people have it, this partly gets into the whole identity politics thing.
Mr. Jekielek: OK.
Mr. Evers: The Obama people—and this got worse as time went on across their eight years—got more involved in identity politics, so treating people not so much as individuals with responsibilities, but as part of some category, OK? And the Trump people—and this includes the justices that he’s promoting in federal appeals courts, Supreme Court, and so forth—are in favor of the rule of law and treating everybody as equal before the courts or before a campus judiciary situation.
So this restorative justice has a kernel of a great idea in it, OK?
Mr. Jekielek: OK.
Mr. Evers: So the idea is when you have an offense of some sort, some active, delinquent behavior, you want to rectify it, you want to put things right, you want to put the scales of justice back in balance. I think we can all see that’s a very, very deep, important part of the concept of justice.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mr. Evers: Now, it works pretty well at the adult criminal justice level. And in Japan, it’s really a central part of how they do it. And it’s part of the American system as you can tell from listening to me talk about it.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: But it doesn’t work as well at the child level.
Mr. Jekielek: What exactly is it?
Mr. Evers: Well, it’s trying to get things back to the way they were before. So if you took my lunch, you have to return my lunch, OK? And then maybe you should be punished additionally for disrupting the structure of law and order so to speak, and for making stress on me in life if I’m the one who’s lunch is taken and so forth. And you can see how you can do this at the adult system. Exactly. But kids don’t really have resources to pay somebody back or something like that, OK? And it’s sort of weird to punish their parents or get stuff from their parents to rectify them. So what happens in practice is it’s all about feelings. It’s all about is everybody feeling happy? Does everybody love each other?
I mean, I’m not against that. Of course I think we want to have love and compassion and tolerance and equity and all those things, but you want to have the material concept that’s there in the adult level and not just have some sort of psychobabble group therapy session when that’s not the essence of justice in this thing.
Mr. Evers: You’re talking about people needing to be responsible.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, yes. They should be responsible for their actions. And this ends up with just some sort of peculiar thing that doesn’t get at that. It doesn’t give the actual restoration of justice, and there’s a version of it that’s even more, I say bizarre. And that is every day is a new day. So suppose I hit you today, and we go through our therapy session, and then I hit you tomorrow, maybe even harder. In a normal justice system for adults, I would pay a heavier penalty for continually doing this.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: And in this version of restorative justice that you often find, they don’t have that. They wipe the slate clean each day. I think that the incentives there are very bad. It’s like giving a free pass to somebody that’s disruptive, whereas you want them to cease. You want them to be a good citizen in the school.
Mr. Jekielek: So is that something that’s actually changing, as we speak?
Mr. Evers: That’s not really a federal thing. I just want to alert any parent that’s listening to watch for abuse of this in their own school. It’s not that Trump is out there doing something on this issue, it’s more that this is a segue from this racial quotas thing that they were imposing on the K-12 schools into thinking of how progressives have at times taken their ideas and they have a bad effect.
Mr. Jekielek: So something that I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past years is how history is taught in K-12, which is obviously your area of expertise, and how essentially the way that history is taught has been changed substantially, in some cases dramatically. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Mr. Evers: Well, let me talk about curriculum in general and then concentrate on history.
Mr. Jekielek: OK.
Mr. Evers: So I talked a bit about this teaching, traditional teaching, and progressive teaching, one sort of caricature learned through play and the other teacher-led classroom and teacher-led classroom to know certain factual knowledge.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: So there’s a man named E. D. Hirsch, Jr. that wrote a book called “Cultural Literacy,” and then he wrote a series of books called “What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know,” “What Your First Grader Needs to Know,” “What Your Second…” and so forth, OK? And these are meant to be things that would help a parent and a teacher know what it is. And if you reach up to 12th grade, a kid would be prepared for college or prepared to go out in the workforce. And generally curriculum standards and the way people teach are supposed to address these things.
Yet, partly because of progressive education, a lot of things have gone by the wayside. So in grammar, where are the sentence diagrammings of yesteryear, where a child knew the parts of speech, the child knew stuff about verbs. There’s just things missing in the way things are taught and what’s in the Common Core and this national curriculum content.
Mr. Jekielek: Your hear that, people making it through the school system and not knowing to read properly in the end or use grammar correctly and so forth.
Mr. Evers: Right, exactly. And so that needs to be restored. Parents should watch for that. They can do sentence diagramming at home. Spelling. A lot of the stuff that were there… if you look at the winners of these spelling bees, they’re not just memorizing the dictionary. I mean, there’s some of that, but mostly they’re learning word roots, how words are put together, and that needs to be a focus.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m very curious because this seems to be a very basic education that most people would have.
Mr. Evers: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: How is it that that suddenly is missing?
Mr. Evers: Well, the progressives don’t really like systematic instruction that focuses on the structure of things. They like people to experience it. So they’re going to experience language, and they’re going to go with the flow of language, and they’re not going to stop and say, OK, we have a subject, a verb, a predicate nominative. We have modifiers. They don’t like that.
Mr. Jekielek: So you kind of replicate that all the way through, and you get a [inaudible] system.
Mr. Evers: And it’s there in math. And it’s there in history. This sense that we’re going to learn through experience rather than learn through the structure of the discipline. People who have been trying to impart this for generations to children have learned that in history we use chronology as a kind of backbone to attach things to.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mr. Evers: Well, they want us to discuss big problems and how they’re relevant to today. And you could do that, but the thing about history is history tells us the chain of cause and effect and people acting over the years that brings us up to the day. And so we learn about that, and we also learn a certain amount of limited lessons from history.
So let me just mention some math deficiencies. So in the Common Core, which is this national thing that’s in 40 states, many big states, they are missing things. They’re missing things about ratios and proportions. They’re missing things about division with remainders. They have a whole new way of doing geometry that’s called rotation on a plane that’s different from the normal Euclidean geometry that you probably learned, I learned, many parents learned. It’s called this rotation on a plane thing. It’s never been successfully used in any state in the United States. They tried it in the Soviet Union with gifted children, and it was a failure. And yet they impose this on the whole country. And in the math instruction, they don’t emphasize fluidity. You need automaticity with your addition and subtraction and times tables, things like that.
These are all missing. Now let’s go to history. I give you some examples relating to progressivism, relating to the New Deal in American history. and relating to the history of socialism.
A lot of this experiential stuff extends into history. So instead of looking at chronology and how things flow together to bring us to where we are now and get some lessons from history, they often want to look at big ideas, some problem. It could be urban congestion or urban beauty, or the ocean, the history of seafaring peoples or something like that, which I think should well be themes in history. But it takes away from a child getting the sense of how things have developed over time. And I give three examples of areas where you can see this.
Mr. Jekielek: So let me just jump in for one second. The thing about history, specifically, that strikes me as difficult is it’s very easily subjected to politicization, right?
Mr. Evers: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: The progressives believe that there is no objective reality as I understand. The reality has created by the ruling power or something of this nature, right? And so now isn’t it, you get kind of free reign in terms of how you can explain what happened or even change the facts. Is that correct or do I have this wrong?
Mr. Evers: Well, some progressives would say their view of things is objectively true. And some would say everything is contested, and it’s just whoever’s in charge is imposing the rhetoric and the perspective. You could even call it perspectivism as their approach. That is, of course, particularly dangerous because it means everything is relative. Everything is up for grabs, and it’s just who’s in charge decides the facts. It’s kind of like out of Orwell with the rewriting everything.
Mr. Jekielek: Precisely. These three examples that you were mentioning, does this play into that?
Mr. Evers: Well, it does in the sense that it’s problematic either way. They may think in their own minds they’re right about this, as we’ll see when we dig in a tiny bit into the examples. But, I don’t think it’s really right to take the view that—in other words, I think something really happened and whether a Republican or Democratic or conservative or progressive or moderate president is in charge or a governor or whatever, the facts are really pretty much the same. And we don’t want to be distorting it to fit an agenda.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course.
Mr. Evers: And Republicans have corrupt presidents every once in awhile or governors. Democrats have corrupt, power-seeking people. There are all these problems.
Mr. Jekielek: So tell me about these three examples you were just describing.
Mr. Evers: Well, if you look at how history is taught in K-12, you find all sorts of missing facts and important things and distortions and biases and so forth. And I just thought there are three things particularly striking that are relevant to our own time. I mean, the most bizarre things are sometimes left out, like in California, in at least what they say they’re going to teach, they leave out the difference between the Shiites and the Sunni. But that’s not one of these three things. I mean, imagine that, in our day, leaving that out.
But anyway, so I thought I’d talk about the progressive movement and the New Deal and socialism. And so as I mentioned earlier when I was talking about progressive governance, there’s the idea of a managerial elite, a rule of experts who know better than the regular public how things should be run. And they may have ratification in some elections, but they want to be an elite in all political parties and in the bureaucracy that’s telling people what to do. And its an idea, social science run amok essentially. But the history accounts of progressivism leave all sorts of things out. Eugenics—these people were trying to force breeding things as if we were lab experiments of animals being bred, or dogs being bred, but by some powerful people at the top
Something out of Hitler, Germany. I mean, the progressive movement advocated, not the mass killings of Hitler, Germany, but the historical progressive movement—I mean, the Woodrow Wilson Administration, just to be specific—thought that blacks should not be allowed to get an academic education. They should only be given a vocational education. Nothing against vocational education, but surely some people want an academic education. How are they going to be ministers among the black population, doctors, whatever, the people who want to be those things. They should have an opportunity if they’re prepared for it and ready for it and want it. And I’m just telling you, the Woodrow Wilson Administration put out a whole report on Negro education, which is what African-Americans were called at the time, and that says that they should be weavers of mats and they—
Mr. Jekielek: I don’t even know what to say when I hear things like this because it’s basically taking a very constitutional basic life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness away from a person.
Mr. Evers: Exactly. And so the whole imperial presidency that we suffered from in the 20th century and the 21st century grows out of this sense that we know best of the progressives.
Mr. Jekielek: Like engineering society or something.
Mr. Evers: Yes. Social engineering. Exactly. So that is left out of these textbooks, and yet it’s all, we had great intentions. OK. Well, slum clearance turned out to be urban renewal projects that wrecked the life of neighborhoods and so forth. They portray good intentions, and they don’t portray some bad intentions. And they don’t portray the results that turned out extremely badly. So that’s progressive and the progressive movement. The New Deal—so they portray the Great Depression of the 1930s as if the Keynesian explanation is correct. That Keynesian explanation is not enough demand, aggregate consumer demand. This is technical but whatever.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mr. Evers: So the people don’t have enough money to buy the goods. That’s the idea.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: And it’s the people en masse. All right, so there’s other major things. So Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate said, no, it had to do with the Federal Reserve Bank, our central bank in the United States, by mistake, causing a monetary contraction, there was too little money by the way they were controlling the money supply. Another important explanation, the Austrian School explanation. Friedrich von Hayek got a Nobel prize for that. And so that idea is there is wrongheaded over-investment, particularly in capital goods. That’s equipment that makes other equipment before it gets to the final retail product that we buy. And that this is caused by rules of the banking system.
These are all a little complicated. But the Keynesian explanation is not necessarily right. And Keynesianism was proved wrong by the stagflation of the 1970s, which Keynesianism says can never happen. And the idea of these stimuluses that the Keynesians always promote, they don’t work very well either. We know Obama tried it, Trump with his deregulation and tax cuts has done much better in opening up and getting an energetic economy than the Keynesian policies of the Obama years. But they leave this out in these histories of the Great Depression.
There’s other things they leave out. The aid to the poor that Franklin Roosevelt gave was not directed to places where most suffering from poverty and have lost during the Great Depression. It was aimed at where the Democrats were in trouble, politically. OK. I mean, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised at that, but a more honest portrait of what was going on tells us that.
The two big policy programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act or Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Recovery Act or National Industrial Recovery Administration were monopoly programs. So when you have a monopoly, you try to reduce the amount produced so you can raise prices. So what the agricultural, industrial—sorry, I keep mixing them—what the Agricultural Adjustment Administration did was it made farmers destroy their crops, burn them, kill cows, and so forth to reduce supply. This is why—well people were hungry, by the way. And then they try to fix the prices. We still have major remnants of this in our farming system today, and it causes distortions. And with the businesses, they try to form deliberate cartels, deliberate monopolies in each industry, reduce production, and raise prices. Why isn’t this in the story? I mean they borrowed this from Mussolini’s Italy. It’s called corporatism, corporate state. They admitted it.
The head of this, the head of the NRA was—National Industrial Recovery Act—General Hugh Johnson said, I am copying this from Mussolini’s Italy. It wasn’t like I’m making this up. They admitted it. They said they admired it. Why isn’t this in the story?
Mr. Jekielek: It sounds like a lot of inconvenient truth, if you could call it that.
Mr. Evers: Right. Exactly. Left out. So take socialists. If you think about it, the big thing that stands out is that socialism in practice has just devastated lives.
Millions and millions of people have died in actually existing socialist countries and really existing socialism—communist China, communist Soviet Union, all these countries, all the different satellites and smaller countries and so forth. History, content standards in the various states and in the history textbooks tend to leave this out. It’s amazing. It’s just almost peculiar. It’s like the outstanding fact. And yet where is it?
Another thing that’s often misleading is they’ll portray the communist revolution in Russia in 1917, and they’ll say, well, there were the czars, and the czar was an absolute monarch and a king and he was pretty incompetent. And then the communists took over, but they leave out the fact that there was a government in between that was like a pretty normal government. It had social democrats, so these were big welfare state type people, and it had peasant parties, the farmers of Russia, and it had classical liberals, it’s like Libertarians. And that was the provisional government. That’s what the communists overthrew. They didn’t overthrow the czar. They had nothing to do with overthrowing the czar. And yet the history leaves this out. It’s like, hey, magic bullet. We overthrew the big bad czar. No they didn’t.
Mr. Jekielek: It sounds like the Soviet version of this story.
Mr. Evers: Yeah, it is. They also kind of slide over it. So things like that are just extremely common. I think this is really important because if we don’t know our history, we don’t know what’s happening. And we look at the millennials and younger generation, and we see these numbers about how socialism seems to be—oh, it would be a great society—but they have a utopian false idea of what actual socialism looks like. We know from history that it’s a terrible thing. We can see in Venezuela today what is happening
Mr. Jekielek: In every application ever.
Mr. Evers: In every application, in every application. Right. So welfare states have their problems. Scandinavia, they have their problems. So do more capitalistic societies like the United States. But we can debate about that. Under communism, under socialism, under thoroughgoing socialism, even if it’s put in place democratically, which in some ways Venezuela was, OK? Hitler came to power democratically. That doesn’t make somehow what he did right? I mean, it makes it even more horrifying.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: The point is it’s the actual totalitarian policies—taking over the whole economy, the suppression of all speech and all liberty and of the press, and taking over the family, taking over all voluntary societies, that’s the tremendous evil, and not enough is explained to people. And so then they have: Oh, well, some sweet alternative to the not-perfect-life I’m living today. You miss that if you don’t get a fair history.
Mr. Jekielek: So Bill, we’re going to have to finish up pretty soon. I still want to hit a little bit on Common Core. This is something that we were discussing earlier.
Mr. Evers: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s, obviously, a massive issue. There’s this huge push to Common Core, and now there’s retraction from Common Core. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Mr. Evers: Sure. There’s kind of two aspects of Common core. You can say there’s the academic deficiencies. Where are things missing? I went over some of the things when I was talking about math, where I was saying ratios and proportions and whatever. There’s some things missing in the English parts of Common Core. They have some of the reading screwed up very slightly in the early years. If you’re a foreigner and you speak a foreign language, not English, and you’re coming to the United States, demonstrative pronouns and reflexive pronouns and the whole complexity of pronouns is very important. Well, it’s not really very well covered in the common core. They wrote it in a big hurry.
But let’s go to the really interesting part of common core, which is the constitutional, the federal-state relations, the whole issue of why are we imposing curriculum content standards from Washington, D.C., from up above? And I think part of what happens—and this, interestingly enough, gets back to the difference between progressives, politically and in governance, and conservatives and libertarians in politics. OK.
So progressives have this idea that absent a higher governmental level running everything, controlling everything, there will be a race to the bottom. By this they mean that everybody will be lazy, will be trying to take the easy way out, won’t rise to their potential unless we force them from the top. So the program of the Obama administration was called “Race to the Top” because this is the flip of what they fear, which is a natural race to the bottom unless they’re in charge or people like them.
Conservatives and libertarians look at the political situation differently. We see we have a federal system in the United States with 50 states, District of Columbia, some territories, and we have all these localities and all these local districts—cities, counties, waste disposal districts, and school districts.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: So we think, conservatives and libertarians, that something goes on called competitive federalism. And this means that under our federal structure that the Founders put in at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, we can try different things. We can have higher and lower taxes. We can spend the money on different things. We can try different programs, and not only can the governments try different programs, but people can vote with their feet, they can move, they can move to a situation where waste disposal is the way they want it, OK?
But in our case, we’re talking about education. So you can move from school district to school district if things are missing or you want something different. It’s not as good as private schools, and we can get into parental choice in a minute. But at least it gives some, I think, very important things. And you can see it because Los Angeles, which is like the whole Los Angeles region—one gigantic school district, OK? It’s terrible by the way. It’s one of the worst. Look at the Boston area. Now Boston and Massachusetts have some other things going for them like the Puritans emphasizing education stuff, which helped even though it was hundreds of years ago, still affects us today. But here’s the key structural thing. The whole area around Boston is different municipalities and different school districts. So if you took the size of the LA Unified School District and plopped it around Boston, you’d see that there’s many, many competing school district. So people can move around.
The problem with Common Core is that it violates and militates against competitive federalism because it’s imposing a curriculum, the same uniform, the same in Mississippi as in Massachusetts, the same in California as in Florida. And first of all, some of them are trying to improve. The South has been trying to improve for a long time.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.
Mr. Evers: If you try to level Massachusetts and Mississippi, you’re going to bring down Massachusetts, and you’re probably going to bring up Mississippi too quickly. So it violates the situation of things, as well as causing this uniformity.
Mr. Jekielek: And, presumably, also there’s a lot more opportunity for innovation around education and this is—
Mr. Evers: Right, right. There might be different ways to teach math. You don’t have to teach—I mean, yes, at the end you have to be wherever your level—
Mr. Jekielek: Basic competencies.
Mr. Evers: Right, but some countries will teach part of algebra one and part of geometry in one year and then the other part of algebra one and the other part of geometry the next year. That’s not crazy. Some states will maybe try that in the United States. I don’t think there’s any reason to block that, OK?
Mr. Jekielek: OK?
Mr. Evers: I think we should take advantage of our structural, the somewhat unconscious genius of our Founding Fathers. So I think this is a big mistake.
Mr. Jekielek: And is it back now?
Mr. Evers: Well, the Common Core is not…OK, so only a few states have really reversed and adopted their own quite different standards. What usually happens is there’s some kind of blow up with the parents and the legislators who were never consulted in this being put in. And so they turn it back to the experts.
And what they do is instead of either restoring their old standards, if they were good before or creating good non [Common Core standards], they’ll take the Common Core—I’ll put a new name on it, the Florida sunshine standards or whatever, I’m not picking an actual thing here—and they’ll just change a few words and it’s really the same. And so that’s generally what happened. Now, the one thing that’s happened that’s good is that they were trying to have a testing duopoly. They wanted to have two national tests that would be linked, OK? So they would have, in effect, a national test. Because when the classroom door is closed, we don’t know if the teachers are teaching the Common Core, maybe they’re teaching something else, but if their kids are all tested on it, what is tested will be what the school districts tell the teachers they have to be teaching.
So what’s happened is instead of this duopoly, the people have fled from the two national tests. And so there’s now, whatever, 20 tests, OK, so that is good because that will help break up this Common Core and so forth. So we had new math in the 1960s. It was a crazy federally proposed thing, and it was in all the textbooks, and the federal government promoted it in many ways, wanted to get into it. But the thing is it didn’t work very well, and so everybody abandoned it over time. And so we’re seeing, I think, that happening. It’s because these people were cleverer and put this in, it’s harder. I hope it’s not like a Venus flytrap that the bug can never get out of. I hope that they can get out of it. It’s really up to the parents and the politicians and journalists in the states to watch for the problems here and say, hey, let’s fix this.
Mr. Jekielek: So you did mention school choice and actually Common Core doesn’t seem to be incredibly supportive of …
Mr. Evers: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: So this is actually something that Betsy DeVos and the Education Department is pushing for. Let’s finish up with a little bit of a discussion around that.
Mr. Evers: OK. So this Common Core thing can be bad for private schools also. So I’ll give you an example. In Indiana, the government schools adopted Common Core back in 2010.
And so they didn’t want to have the private schools, the Catholic schools, the Lutheran schools, whatever other nonsectarian schools were out there having something different. So what they did was they said if you want to be in an athletic league with any public school, you have to have Common Core. Can you see how insidious this is? Then the Common Core people went into the college entrance exam. And the current head of the College Board that runs the SAT college entrance board exam is a guy that was one of the architects of the Common Core.
So they are trying to have this monopoly of curriculum in the United States. Choice, especially if we can get out of the Common Core, can allow for parents to pick the kind of school that suits their child, that suits their values. If they want a structured school, you can get that through parental choice, through vouchers, through charter schools. If you want a progressive school, you can have it under this. So it’s a better way. One of the problems is all the things I’ve outlined about spelling and grammar and deficiencies in math and history—it’s very hard. It takes resilience and persistence of parents or teachers that are concerned about this to get the teacher establishment, the educational establishment—the blob, as it’s sometimes called—to reverse or fix these things. If you can start your own school that does it right–
Mr. Jekielek: You fixed it.
Mr. Evers: You can fix it, right, like that. And it’s just like the marketplace, or you’re unhappy with your religion that you’re in. You can go to another religion in American society. You could go to a different congregation within the same religion and so forth. So we need to empower parents so that they can pick what’s right for their children.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, that’s an excellent place to end. Thank you so much for being here.
Mr. Evers: Great.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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