A Unified Theory of Education

Frederick M. Hess & Michael Q. McShane

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When it comes to education, these have been the best of times and the worst of times.

In 2021, West Virginia adopted the nation's first universal education-savings-account (ESA) program. In 2022, Arizona adopted the second. That trickle became a flood in 2023, with states from Arkansas to Utah to Ohio adopting their own programs. Around the same time, conservatives arose from a long slumber to successfully challenge (albeit often clumsily) left-wing dogmas regarding race and gender that had been coursing unchecked through American colleges and schools for decades. Finally, the science of reading is ascendant, with lawmakers in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Indiana revamping early literacy instruction according to rigorous, reliable research on how students learn to read.[correction appended] 

But elsewhere in education, the tale has been less rosy. Washington's $200 billion in pandemic aid fueled a hiring binge in K-12 schools but failed miserably at combating learning loss. The early-childhood lobby has championed a bureaucratic vision of universal pre-K that would raise costs, limit options, and devastate neighborhood mom-and-pops and faith-based providers. The Biden administration keeps finding new ways to forgive federal student loans, which reward the fortunate, subsidize college-price inflation, and play taxpayers for suckers. Meanwhile, colleges are somehow faring worse on free inquiry and civility simultaneously, allowing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) apparatchiks to police speech for microaggressions as anti-Semitic harassment rages unabated.

In short, in the past several years, conservatives have experienced both major victories and the familiar frustrations of confronting entrenched systems dominated by unions, activists, and the college cartel. All of these institutions have long enjoyed close ties with the Democratic Party. Today, however, that relationship has increasingly become a liability amid massive learning losses, progressive cultural aggression, and plunging trust in the value of college. As the party of the education establishment, Democrats are stuck defending and subsidizing a suspect status quo.

This gives the right an extraordinary opportunity to emulate the kind of successes evident in the triumphs of educational choice, the pushback against ham-fisted DEI initiatives, and the advancement of literacy. But doing so requires offering a broader agenda — one that is coherent, appealing, and rooted in shared values. In that spirit, conservatives should ponder a question that we rarely ask: What are the guiding principles that can frame our approach to education, whether we're thinking about preschool or graduate school?

For us, at least, the answer resides in the kinds of institutions we need, the people we want to populate them, and the ends we want teachers and students to pursue. For convenience's sake, we think the result can loosely be regarded as a unified theory of education.


As noted above, school choice has enjoyed signal success in recent years. Why? Well, for decades, advocates largely offered school choice as a life raft for low-income families trapped in lousy schools. Post-pandemic, though, it's increasingly about ensuring that all kinds of families are able to find the learning situation that's right for their child.

Educational choice promotes liberty, challenges a comfortable monopoly, equips families to escape objectionable dogmas, and embodies values that resonate across the ideological spectrum. It addresses concerns of both the traditional right and the new right while allowing all kinds of families to find schools that respect and reflect their values. There's a larger lesson here for thinking about educational institutions.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that there are more than 98,000 public and 30,000 private schools, and nearly 6,000 institutions of higher education, in the United States. Conservatives should care deeply about both the stewardship of existing institutions and efforts to create new ones. Whether old or new, though, there are certain characteristics that good institutions share.

First, they are personal. The past century has featured ambitious attempts to standardize American education. In the early 1900s, progressives sought to bureaucratize K-12 into what historian David Tyack termed "the one best system." In the 1920s, Oregon progressives (along with the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan) outlawed private schooling, only to have the policy reversed by the Supreme Court. Twenty-first century reforms like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core were designed to standardize education delivery and outcome measurement. Of late, early-childhood advocates have worked assiduously to restrict who can provide child care and tack additional years of pre-K onto K-12 systems. In higher education, credentialing and accreditation have helped bring a remarkable degree of organizational and operational homogeneity to a universe of thousands of two- and four-year institutions.

Whatever the merits of standardization a century ago — when the challenge was providing enough books, seats, and buildings in a nation where few adults had finished high school — it's less compelling today in a world where information is ubiquitous and the more pressing challenge is providing instruction that's coherent, rigorous, and engaging. This tension is perhaps clearest in early-childhood education, where the north star should be not erecting new bureaucracies or expanding old ones, but cultivating good, reliable institutions that are connected to children's families and rooted in their communities. The aim ought to be promoting a rich array of human-sized options, not wedging four-year-olds into existing school buildings.

In K-12 and higher education, this means allowing institutions to focus on serving their students and fulfilling their missions. That holds for everything from the 15-student classical micro-school that meets in the local library to the post-secondary start-up that teaches students to code quickly and cost effectively. Standardizing how schools are measured or managed would sound a death knell for these institutions; what's needed instead are transparency and accreditation systems that minimize barriers for new entrants while focusing on results that match the model.

Second, good educational institutions are voluntary. Government agencies don't spin the same webs of support that voluntary organizations do. Bureaucratic routines and electronic deposits from government accounts don't create the same bonds. While those bureaucracies and payouts may be necessary, they can come at a cost to the social fabric. Indeed, government overreach can too readily unravel the informal ties among people that develop organically through private cooperation and community endeavors.

None of this presumes malice or malfeasance; it's just that government programs lack voluntary institutions' capacity to form attachments. The government is a set of rules, agencies, and mechanisms. It cannot love you or your children. Even among the most respected K-12 superintendents and university presidents, it's rare to find one who knows more than a handful of students by name and face. The relationships are impersonal not because these are uncaring people, but because large public systems are ultimately impersonal. Bureaucratic routine, legal dictates, reporting requirements, and batch processing are no recipe for interpersonal warmth.

This has direct implications for education. Assigning students to schools based on where they live — regardless of their views, values, or needs — is a lousy way to create a healthy, vibrant educational community. Families need choices. Some children are going to thrive in a Montessori preschool where they can pursue their interests with their teacher as a guide. Some children are going to need more direction to master the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for K-12. Some parents want a religious education for their child. Other parents want a secular one. Forcing parents to send their children to one or the other is wrong, as is denying them the ability to choose. The first step toward creating strong school communities is allowing parents freedom of choice.

Finally, good educational institutions are flexible. Given the diverse needs and circumstances of families, it's odd that schools have settled into such homogenized routines across so many different communities, even as they leave too many children alienated and ill served. As the world of work transforms and parents' schedules change, we may need to develop new child-care and early-childhood-education models that sync their calendars with the shifting rhythms of family life.

Families have made it clear that they're open to alternative schooling arrangements. Every month since February 2021, EdChoice and Morning Consult have asked a national sample of parents whether they'd prefer to homeschool their children, send them to school full time, or send them to school for part of the week. A bit over 10% consistently say they'd like to homeschool full time, close to half want their kids in school five days a week, and more than 40% prefer some kind of hybrid schedule. Which model is "best"? That's the wrong question. The right question is: Which makes sense for a given student? And that's just as true for dozens of other considerations relating to pedagogy, curricula, discipline, scheduling, and much else.

The best way to promote flexibility — whether it be in early childhood, K-12, or higher education — is through a funding mechanism that allows a variety of providers to develop and thrive. As noted earlier, several states have created ESA programs that do just that. This is also a promising approach for early-childhood education, so long as the program is designed not to penalize parents who opt to stay home with their young children instead of putting them in center-based child care.

There are lots of ways to make post-secondary school more flexible as well. Three-year degrees could allow students to get through college more quickly. Hybrid colleges could enable them to take courses both in person and online. Some post-secondary schools might permit students to complete coursework, collect industry certifications, and earn degrees in a non-linear fashion, moving in and out of the institution as their needs dictate. Educational institutions should have the requisite room to devise new formats that meet the needs of very different students and families.


Schools and colleges may be the most important formative institutions we have. Consequently, good educators approach their role as a formative occupation, not a performative perch. Today, however, we fear that too many educators view their work as performative, using their positions as platforms to advance their political or ideological hobbyhorses.

Think, for example, of the eighth-grade English teacher who felt obliged to take to the pages of Education Week to declare: "When I read Romeo and Juliet with my students, I pause, give a thumbs-down, and say 'Boo' when the play says something misogynistic." There's something hubristic about a teacher who feels obliged to boo a 400-year-old Shakespearean play because the language doesn't conform to her 21st-century sociopolitical views. Students read great literature to encounter flawed heroes, tragic villains, and moral dilemmas. Education as formation is about helping students wrestle with these dilemmas, not imposing one's own ideological inclinations onto them. What this teacher offered was a portrait of performance rather than pedagogy.

Pop culture has done America a disservice when it comes to portraying the types of educators we should want in our schools and colleges. Whether it's the righteous rebel Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society or the charismatic disciplinarian Joe Clark from Lean on Me, our culture has tended to celebrate self-serving showmen over self-effacing educators.

The kind of pop-culture educator we ought to celebrate may be less meme-worthy than Keating or Clark, but more deserving of the mantle. In the Netflix series The Crown, young Prince Charles is sent to Aberystwyth University to be tutored in Welsh by Edward Millward. Millward is initially loath to teach Charles, given his conviction that Wales should be independent of the Crown, but eventually he relents.

Millward offered a model of a formative educator. He was a man of deep conviction, whose mastery of his subject grew from a love of language, culture, and history, and who neither checked his beliefs at the door nor allowed them to interfere with his calling. Ultimately, he cultivated a student-teacher relationship that transcended distrust, yielding new respect and mutual understanding. We should want to send our children to schools and colleges where that mindset is the norm.

Formative educators recognize that schools are serious places with a sacred charge. Students, whether four or 40, should be taught about matters of substance, confront big ideas and great questions, and learn to understand and appreciate things that are good, true, and beautiful. Especially in early childhood and K-12, educators should help students operate as explorers who ask what is powerful and ennobling about great works. There's plenty of time for students to act as critics later on.


It was Hannah Arendt who said that each generation, our society is invaded by barbarians: We call them children. Observe young children on the playground and you'll see people who cannot wait their turn, share, listen, or keep their hands to themselves. These basic building blocks of communal life must be taught. Much of this responsibility should fall to parents, but teachers play an important role as well.

Perhaps the most pernicious belief in teacher preparation today is that firm discipline is somehow evil. Concern about the "school-to-prison pipeline" has convinced too many in education that giving detentions leads to suspensions, then to expulsion, and ultimately to incarceration. In place of traditional forms of discipline, schools have adopted "restorative" practices that frequently dispense with consequences for misbehavior.

Discipline needs to be measured and fair, but that's no reason to discard disciplinary norms in the name of equity. After all, there is nothing especially equitable about unsafe schools. Concern about the disparate impact of school-discipline policies on non-white students must be paired with concern for the disparate impact of unsafe schools on those same students. Chaotic classrooms are just as soul crushing as authoritarian ones. Tom Bennett, tasked by the United Kingdom's government with improving school discipline, said it well:

What can a teacher do...with a student who tells them to "f*** off"? [With] "restorative practice"...they are encouraged to discuss the impact of their actions on themselves and others. This would be lovely if it actually worked at scale, but sadly has never been proven to do so....Lots of students simply aren't as amenable to talking cures as we would like. This is essentially why traffic wardens don't hand out restorative conversation tickets or try to "understand why the driver felt the need to park there." Boundaries need consequences....[B]ut school leaders are told not to exclude, and teachers are told not to sanction.

The vast majority of parents, students, and educators want safe, orderly classrooms and campuses, however much it offends the sensibility of the education-school vanguard. Whether in K-12 or college, educators should not retreat from establishing clear disciplinary expectations or asking students to be responsible for their behavior.

Of course, education is also a partnership — between school and family, teacher and student — and it requires everyone involved to do his part. It's tough to teach a student who resists learning, never mind one who refuses to quiet down, pay attention, and keep his hands to himself. Part of a teacher's job is to instill students with self-discipline, but parents and guardians need to do their part to raise children who are responsible, respectful, and ready to learn — and students, especially in post-secondary schools, need to shoulder responsibility for their learning.

In recent decades, education reformers have made mistakes on this front. While activists have worked aggressively to hold teachers accountable, they've been reluctant to talk about the responsibilities of parents and students. Thirty years ago, it was far too easy to find educators who would shirk accountability for failure by blaming students or their families. That was a problem then; fortunately, things have changed.

Unfortunately, we're now at the point where policymakers and education leaders are hesitant (for fear of violating the ill-defined tenets of equity) to assert that parents must do their part to ensure their children are academically successful. They're reluctant to tell parents that they need to read to their children, limit their screen time, get them to school every day, and set clear expectations for behavior. The result has left parents without direction, undercut the parent-school partnership, and left educators feeling like they're on their own. We shouldn't be surprised if the kinds of teachers and professors we admire leave the classroom when they feel like they're the only ones upholding their end of the bargain.

Teachers are neither martyrs nor miracle workers: They are professionals who should be held to account for their work. But that work is never the job of a teacher alone — it's always performed in concert with students and families. Parents, guardians, and students themselves need to recognize this and fulfill their duties in the educational partnership.


While an education is one of the great gifts of modern civilization, you wouldn't necessarily reach that conclusion after spending an hour in the typical high-school or college classroom. Far too many young people pass through school without encountering big ideas, engaging with great books, writing rigorously, or wrestling with important questions about the human condition. Instead, their education is a series of small drudgeries to be endured.

This state of affairs has many culprits. It's a legacy of early 20th-century education reformers who sought to erect standardized systems in accord with then-current notions of scientific-management theory. It's a product of a 21st-century vision of school reform that reified measurement at the expense of meaning. And it's the result of college campuses where faculty thrive by treating conventional notions of truth and beauty as punchlines.

Today, too many schools and colleges have allowed agitprop to stand in for academic mastery and come to treat dime-store dogmas as revealed truths. We need to do better.

The aim of any true education is truth, goodness, and beauty. And the pursuit of all three begins with schools helping students develop an affection for and connection to the people and ideas that shape their world. The late British philosopher Roger Scruton suggested as much when he argued that schools should instill a sense of oikophilia in students. While the Greek root oiko refers to the home or household (it's also the root of the word "economy"), Scruton expanded it to mean the home, family, community, and culture. Scruton argued that we should teach children to feel an attachment to who they are and where they come from.

Part of an educator's task is to help build students' attachment to their communities. Small children may not need to know what's happening far away, but they do need to understand whom and what they are going to encounter in their daily lives. They need to feel anchored in their families and a sense of belonging within their immediate communities. Schools should thus help our youngest students develop a bond with their family members, friends, and neighborhoods.

In primary and secondary school, the circle of attachment gradually widens. At this point, teachers should work to help students appreciate that they're part of communities with which they have a reciprocal relationship. To be attached to a community is to understand that one owes something to it. We want students to know their obligations and rights as citizens because they love their country and community, and want to improve both.

Students at this age should learn that it is a gift to be American, and that this is due only to the actions and sacrifices of generations who've come before. Young people should be taught to cherish the inheritance their forefathers have bestowed on them. They must also learn that someday the torch will be passed on to them, and that they must take it up.

Attachment is a sensible place to start, but our students' educational journeys shouldn't end there: Teachers must also help teach their pupils to appreciate the world around them and to revel in its beauty. We want students to know their history and how we've become who we are. We want them to celebrate their cultural heritage and traditions. We want them to understand the people and ideas that shape their world. This means asking young people to engage with the past, with science and mathematics, and with great works of literature and art.

While it can sound quaint (or even odd) today, an educator's task is ultimately to cultivate love. Opening the doors of knowledge and possibility should help students develop a love of learning, great works, their community, and intellectual adventure. Schools should be places where students learn the gratifying weight of responsibility, the satisfaction of work done well, and the empowerment that comes with learning to ask good questions and seek satisfying answers. The books that students read and the activities they do should instill in them a love that sticks long after they have passed through the schoolhouse door for the last time.


When it comes to education, conservatives have gotten some big things right — especially on educational choice and protecting free inquiry on campus. But we haven't succeeded in translating these intuitions into a broader, more robust agenda. The result has been a lot of time spent playing defense — fending off a steady stream of progressive proposals to standardize, subsidize, and politicize our educational institutions.

What we've sought to do here is to take the approaches that generally feel intuitive to a broad swath of the right and suggest how they might provide a cohesive, principled approach to education. After all, for many conservatives, the innate appeal of education is how it can promote shared values and build children's attachment to our cultural inheritance. Unfortunately, for education reformers in thrall to the machinery of schooling, this dimension of education is too often lost along the way — even on the right.

In lieu of new spending schemes or exercises in technocratic adventurism, we should approach education from a place more explicitly grounded in practical, formative, human-sized solutions. Children are not abstractions, and parents are loath to entrust their child's well-being to radicals who speak as if they are. Our approach is rooted in a particular kind of seriousness: a purposeful, formative, joyous kind.

Americans benefit from our common heritage, and the people, experiences, and events that constitute this heritage have much to teach. Our predecessors learned hard lessons. They built things. They created great works. They planted the trees under whose shade we sit. We should be grateful to them and work to conserve the gifts we've inherited from them.

Many who don't view themselves as conservative may well say, "this sounds good to us, too." Of course it does: Regardless of whether they vote red or blue, most Americans cherish these things and share these values. That's the whole point. To the great consternation of some of our friends in the ivory tower, most Americans approach education with conservative intuitions. That impulse doesn't mean embracing any particular party; it simply provides a common set of affections and values for us to build on. These include a sense of personal responsibility, an attachment to family and community, and a commitment to opportunity. This is how we honor what we've been given and help improve on our inheritance for those who will follow.

Conservatives have known this for a long time. But we've too rarely done a good job articulating it or using it to anchor an education agenda worthy of this great nation. That's where a unified theory just might help.

Correction appended: The original text incorrectly stated the order of states that adopted universal education-savings accounts. West Virginia passed the first universal ESA in 2021, followed by Arizona in 2022. We apologize for the error.[return to text]

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Q. McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.

They are the authors of Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K-12, and College (Teachers College Press 2024).


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