Two storylines compete for attention in K-12 education. One is about arguments, and the other is about agreements.
The arguments story goes like this. Americans are at odds on many K-12 education issues, especially over culture war issues like critical race theory, library banning books, and gay and transgender rights.
The agreements narrative is different. It says that most Americans see eye to eye on K-12 issues that matter. Division disappears when prioritizing what’s most important in K-12 and knowing if schools are doing their job.
Yes, there are hot-button disagreements. But the arguments story creates a collective illusion around K-12 education where people falsely assume that most others don’t share their values, so they’re silent about what they actually think.
A decade ago, the arguments story may have had the upper hand. Issues like giving families more education options were divisive.
But the pandemic led many Americans — including young people — to a new K-12 consensus. Today, it’s more accurate to say the educational landscape is dominated by a K-12 ideological heartland of domestic realists.
This ideological heartland isn’t about “flyover country” or “coastal elites.” It’s about a state of mind interested in pragmatic solutions and common sense instead of fighting culture wars.
Two-thirds of Americans live in the ideological heartland. These domestic realists don’t make headlines the way culture warriors do. But they agree on three critical issues shaping the future of K-12 education.
First, K-12 is a top issue and needs a priority reset. A bipartisan survey of 2022 midterm voters found nearly three in four (72 percent) say a 2023 priority for state lawmakers is “improving K-12 education.” This is less than the No. 1 priority that 76 percent of respondents identified as “improving the economy and job situation.”
Meantime, a decisive majority of Americans want change in K-12 education. Nearly six in 10 (56 percent) want schools to create new ways to teach students.
Domestic realists agree on what K-12 change should look like. They what schools to prioritize developing “practical skills” for young people, including the ability to “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character … (and) basic reading, writing and arithmetic.” Only one in four (26 percent) think schools do this.
Second, the college degree has lost its shine. Given the preference for practical skills in education, it’s not surprising that a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds nearly six in 10 (56 percent) Americans say a four-year degree is “not worth the cost” since graduates leave college without specific skills and large debts. Those between 18 to 34 are most skeptical about the value of college. And Gen Z high schoolers don’t see college through the same rose-colored glasses as prior generations. Five surveys between 2020 and 2022 found that half (51 percent) of high schoolers plan to attend a four-year college, a shocking decline of 20 percentage points.
Third, parents and young people want more education pathways. More than eight in 10 (85 percent) parents strongly or somewhat agree that “more educational options (should be) available for my child.” They also support career pathways besides college, such as three-year apprenticeships after high school that can lead to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.” Another survey reports more than 70 percent of parents want new programs — both in and out of school — that give children a well-rounded education.
The agreements story is genuine. It’s about most Americans being domestic realists who want similar things from K-12 education. They want schools to give children a solid, practical education. And they want more pathways to a promising career other than four-year college degrees, an approach I call opportunity pluralism.
It shouldn’t surprise us that these three priorities are prominent in the K-12 agendas state governors are proposing. An analysis of the 2023 state of the state addresses shows that career and technical programs and other educational options for families and young people ranked among the most popular legislative issues named by governors.
These programs include apprenticeships and internships; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies, boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge and skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for families and young people.
These programs acquaint young people with the practical demands of the workforce guided by mentors. They develop a young person’s self-agency, or ability to act to achieve what they want in life.
But consensus doesn’t imply everyone takes the same approach to implementation. Republicans in 22 states and Democrats in 17 states hold the governorship and both state houses, so legislative specifics will vary. But this implementation pluralism follows the American tradition of states and communities as laboratories of democracy that test and refine laws and policies over time.
It’s time to put the arguments narrative about irreconcilable differences to rest. There is an opportunity for coalition-building in the ideological heartland, reflecting an agreements narrative on what Americans want from K-12 education.
Let’s start paying attention to the coalition of domestic realists, who are coming together to find practical governing ideas based on everyday concerns shared by most Americans.