Radically Transforming the Nation: Our Politicized Schools of Education

If somebody wanted to fundamentally transform a society to its roots, where would he or she start?

The most logical starting point would be education. And if there were one part of the educational system that would produce this transformation most broadly, effectively, and efficiently, it would most likely be at our schools of education that train teachers for the K-12 classroom. That’s where ideas from the rest of academia are inserted into the curriculum for elementary and high school students, and where politically unsophisticated young people are turned into classroom teachers. Control the schools of education, and the education system will eventually be yours to forward your political agenda.

Remarkably, that is just what has happened in this country. Over 100 years ago, when our education schools were just starting up or growing from two-year normal schools to university status, Progressive educators set out to transform the nation into one that was based on social science theories, collectivism, and central planning.

How successful were they? Several years ago, I started an investigation into how politicized education schools have become. Today, the Martin Center is releasing the results of that investigation in a new report, titled “The Politicization of University Schools of Education.”

The report’s main conclusion? That schools of education may very well be radicalized beyond anything imagined by the early Progressives.

The way I came to that conclusion was through two methods. One was an empirical examination of the syllabi of three major education schools, the Universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina. I looked at 290 total syllabi from the three education schools and tabulated the most frequently assigned authors. Rather than basing popularity on the number of times an author’s works were assigned, I used the number of classes in which their works were assigned; counting every time a book or article is assigned can skew the results if a professor assigns multiple works by the same author. I also counted every author for each article.

In the other method, I identified the major strains of radical K-12 education—Progressive, critical pedagogy, and multicultural education—and followed their increasing influence in academia.

The overall results of the main empirical investigation are in Table 1 below.

Table I. Ten Most Frequently Assigned Authors (All Schools)
Gloria Ladson-Billings 8 2 22    32
Linda Darling-Hammond 8 5 6    19
Paolo Freire 4 4 9    17
Jean Anyon 1 5 11    17
John Dewey 3 7 6    16
Michael Apple 1 3 12    16
Pedro Noguera 1 1 14    16
Annete Lareau 6 3 6    15
Jeannie Oakes 2 1 9    12
Tara Yosso 5 1 4    10


So, who are these authors and what ideas are they promoting?

First of all, they are not fringe players, but key members of the education establishment. Most of them have held prestigious positions in the world of education. The most frequently assigned writer is Gloria Ladson-Billings. She is the associate vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she formerly served as the chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the UW School of Education. She is currently the president of the National Academy of Education and, for 2005-2006, was president of the American Educational Research Association.

The next most assigned author is Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond. She was an advisor on education to President Obama before he took office and was just chosen by California governor Gavin Newsom to head the state Board of Education. She was chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, past president of the American Educational Research Association, served as director of the RAND Corporation’s education program, and “from 1994–2001, she was executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.” According to the biography on the website of her own think tank, the Learning Policy Institute, “in 2006, Darling-Hammond was named one of the nation’s ten most influential people affecting educational policy.”

Paolo Freire and John Dewey are household names—perhaps two of the most influential education theorists who ever lived.

Secondly, every person on my Top Ten list is highly political and holds beliefs far to the left of ordinary liberals. Dewey was the leading Progressive educator and an open socialist. He visited the Soviet Union and came back filled with praise for what, at the time, was a genocidal totalitarian state. The Brazilian Freire was openly a Marxist.

According to her National Academy of Education biography, Ladson-Billings is “known for her groundbreaking work in the fields of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Critical Race Theory.” Ladson-Billings once wrote that “we educators should align our scholarship with the philosophy of Marcus Garvey: race first!” One of her works assigned at UNC is a book chapter titled “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” in which she seems to argue for reparations for historical differences in education between the races.

Former Rutgers and CUNY education professor Jean Anyon is the fourth most-assigned author. She is an unabashed radical activist who participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests. A couple of her best-known works, both assigned at Wisconsin, are Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education and a New Social Movement and Social Class, School Knowledge, and the Hidden Curriculum. Another book, though not assigned at Wisconsin, is Marx and Education, Theory and Educational Research: Toward Critical Social Explanation.

And so it goes for the rest of my list, plus a high percentage of the education writers whose works were less frequently assigned than the top ten.

My findings were strongly corroborated by the two other studies I found that explore the same topic. Both were conducted by political moderates: Frederick Hess, who is the lead educational expert at the American Enterprise Institute, and David Steiner, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy (hardly a hotbed of conservatism). Steiner summarized his findings:

In the domain of foundations of education, the books most often required by the programs we reviewed were authored by Anita Woolfolk, Jonathan Kozol, Henry Giroux, Paulo Freire, Joel Spring, Howard Gardner, and John Dewey . . . The rest are well-known works that embrace a constructivist and/or progressive standpoint. Conspicuously absent from almost all such syllabi were works that took a very different approach to teaching, such as those by E. D. Hirsch or Diane Ravitch.

Woolfolk is an educational psychologist, but everybody else mentioned by Steiner as influential are (or were) proponents of one radical theory or another. While Freire and Dewey were the only ones to make my top ten list, Kozol, Gardner, Giroux, and Spring were also frequently assigned at the three schools I examined.

Besides exploring the education school syllabi and the philosophical underpinnings of education schools’ radicalization, I took a look at the UNC-Chapel Hill education school faculty from a couple of different angles. First, I found on the UNC website the voter registrations of tenure and tenure track faculty. Of the 52 such education school faculty members, 30 are registered as Democrats, 10 as unaffiliated, two as Republicans, and 10 were not registered. The two Republicans are both in their sixties, so they will likely retire in a few years, whereas younger professors are solidly in the Democratic camp.

The UNC education school website also listed professors’ research interests. Just over half—27 of 52—of professors expressed a research interest in at least one topic that indicated some degree of politicization. And just like with voting registrations, the assistant professors whose current characteristics predict the future were more frequently radical than their older counterparts: 8 of 12 expressed an interest in politicized topics.

Here are a couple of examples of who is teaching in the education school at Chapel Hill:

Brian Gibbs, an assistant professor, quotes from Angela Davis—“Radical simply means grasping things at the root”—to start his personal department page. His research interests include: Critical Pedagogy, Social Justice and Democratic Education, Teacher Disposition, Positionality and Ideology, Teacher Education, Justice Oriented School Leadership, and School Transformation.

Eileen Parsons, a full professor, has research and teaching interests that include: Socio-cultural dimensions of science learning, Broadening participation in STEM, STEM Education policy, African American education, Cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness in science education, Racial equity, and Critical Race Theory.

Take special note of Parsons’s connection of culture to science education—she is teaching that science is dependent upon the background of the learner rather than universal. The idea is absurd, undermining scientific methodologies with proven accuracy and utility.

Some of the other ideas commonly espoused in education schools today include:  race and gender are social constructs; meritocracy is unfair; knowledge of dates, events, and great personages are unnecessary for the study of history; all social knowledge is suspect due to racism and sexism being embedded in the language and culture; and to be white is to be unfairly privileged and must be atoned for.

This is not to say that all education schools are nothing more than hotbeds of indoctrination and that all recent graduates are hardcore social justice warriors. The education school curriculum grows more intensely radical in graduate programs; undergraduates may not always get the full blast.

And uncovering all the effects of the politicization of education is beyond the scope of my report. But it is highly probable that many—perhaps most—recent education school graduates have swallowed at least part of the radical agenda. Consider the generational shift in opinions about socialism in the following Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2011:

Table 2. Generational Attitudes toward Socialism
Age Positive Negative
18-29 49 43
30-49 34 58
50-64 25 68
65+ 13 72

Certainly, correlation is not causation, and there are many other non-education factors at play that could influence the political leanings of the young. But it is not a stretch too far to wonder whether, given the influence radicals have in our education schools, that education has at least some part in the dramatic generational shift to the left. For, if education has no influence on the young, why would we waste so much time and so many resources on education?

Sadly, one question that I could not find an answer for is how we can restore our schools of education. Two of the three—UNC and Wisconsin—seem too entrenched in radical ideology to ever purge the poisonous politics voluntarily. And Michigan may not be too far behind.

And while the usual conservative solution is to create alternate institutions, such as homeschooling or private schools that hire outside of mainstream education schools, it is unlikely that the great mass of people will eschew public schools for these alternatives any time soon.

But if there is any hope for renewal, it starts with awareness. It is time our policymakers stopped ignoring the disastrous trend to politicize education.

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.