Johns Hopkins’ Ashley Berner on Educational Pluralism & Democracy

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Albert: [00:00:00] Well, hello everybody. How’s it going? This is Albert Cheng welcoming you to another episode of the Learning Curve podcast. And co-hosting with me today is Charlie Chieppo. Hey, Charlie, how’s it going? Hi, Albert. I’m well. Hope you are too. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Charlie: Likewise. Always a pleasure.

Albert: And you know what? It’s always a pleasure to foist my musings on mathematics to you. Let’s get into the news here. I actually came across an article written by a Professor of math instruction from New Zealand. Dr. Tanya Evans and the headline is Maths teaching fails pupils by ignoring cognitive science findings We have to prioritize the science of learning over political expediency to revitalize the mathematics curriculum and its teaching And lot of it reminded me of Some of James Stigler’s research we had on a couple months ago to talk about math instruction.

And what Dr Evans in this article is observing? Well, she observes things [00:01:00] like direct instruction or memorizing math. Facts, you know, road memorization, and I mean, look, road memorization, direct learning. I mean, they don’t get as much credit in schools of education generally, or at least that’s the prevailing wisdom of how to teach mathematics.

Well, you know, that you shouldn’t be doing those things, right? But Dr Evans in the article makes an argument that actually, these things are helpful that they do things to bolster our working memory and enable us to access. Foundational ideas and facts, especially as we learn more advanced mathematics.

So, just encourage you and listeners to give it a read and consider that.

Charlie: Well, I’ll tell you, Albert, this one speaks to me. Look, I’m a writer. I certainly can’t claim to be a math guy, but the math skill that I am most pleased with and thankful that was really stressed when I was in school was just learning basic arithmetic, you know, I know that I can basically do any sort of addition, subtraction, division, multiplication in my head, and it [00:02:00] is absolutely the most useful math skill I have in terms of stuff that I use every single day.

In real life. So, my experience certainly reinforces what this person is saying. So,

Albert: Yeah, let me foist on you. Maybe an analogy that you know, you said you’re you write a lot. I kind of like math facts to grammar. Yeah, really, the end goal is for us to not even just read excellent literature, but to also communicate well I’d say, you know, you gotta learn grammar you know, syntax, and that basic stuff.

It’s gotta be second nature. And I think that’s the same with arithmetic and just some. Basic foundational math things. If you want to access the elegant and beautiful proofs and the mysteries that are out there, right? You need that foundation, just like you need grammar syntax, and spelling skills for, writing and reading great literature.

Charlie: No, that’s a good analogy. And brings to mind just how important this time of year in particular, it brings to mind how important it is to have some basic math skills to read those box scores, which I’m so [00:03:00] pleased to be doing. Yeah, that’s right. So there you go.

Yeah. Well, what news did you come across? the one I want to talk about is one that sort of affects me directly, I saw a political piece about secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, testifying before Congress about this kind of botched rollout of the new financial aid form FAFSA federal financial aid form.

You know, the forms were late becoming available and the idea was that they were going to be easier to fill out. But, 30 percent of the forms that have been submitted have been potentially affected by processing errors, data errors, and, you know, surprise, surprise, it’s become a big political football.

Cardona has not apologized. he’s saying there’s nothing more important than fixing this problem. And, you know, the Republicans are going after him and going after the Biden administration, generally, the Democrats make excuses. One Democratic member talked about the massive technological change this required, [00:04:00] as if that’s news now expecting that.

Here’s what I know. And here’s the important part because it relates to me, I submitted this new form for my son and daughter two months ago. And I have not even gotten a confirmation of receipt. Oh boy. This is like, unnecessarily making my blood pressure go up. I think the Department of Education has been tone-deaf. You know, they’ve been consistently behind the story, but I come away from reading this just thinking, you know, okay, the political points have been scored now how about a little less grandstanding and maybe a little more time devoted to fixing this problem that affects so many millions of people around the country.

Albert: yeah, sorry to hear that. this is no joke and the stakes are pretty high.

Charlie: yeah

Albert: Certainly in a time where people’s perceptions of higher ed and interest and enrolling are lower. I mean, this is just another hurdle. So, hope they get things fixed.

Charlie: Yeah, that’s a good point. I didn’t even think of that. But you’re right that and universities must just be [00:05:00] enraged. Yeah, I think this could not be worse for them.

Albert: Yeah. Well, let’s hope for the best here and, that things get cleaned up. But on the flip side of this break, we’ve got Ashley Berner here to talk about her new book Educational Pluralism and Democracy, How to Handle Indoctrination, Promote Exposure, and Rebuild America’s Schools. So stay tuned for our conversation with her.

Dr. Ashley Berner is the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute [00:06:00] for Education Policy and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Dr. Berner focuses on the relationship between educational structure and state funding in democratic nations, religious education and citizenship formation, and teacher preparation in different national contexts.

She published her first book on educational pluralism in 2017, and in April 2024 released Educational Pluralism and Democracy, How to Handle Indoctrination, Promote Exposure, and Rebuild America’s Schools. She holds degrees from Davidson College and from Oxford University, Ashley. It’s great to have you on the show.


Ashley: Well, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Albert: Let’s talk about your new book. Again, it’s entitled educational pluralism and democracy, how to handle indoctrination, promote exposure, and rebuild America’s schools. Why don’t we start with a brief overview of the book, and how you think ideas might help us improve K12 education?

Ashley: Sure. The headline really is [00:07:00] that if we diversify the delivery of education, as we have been for quite some time, and if we address the content of education so that it’s more robust intellectually, that those two things together could create real benefits for students, families, and teachers. so I spend a brief amount of time in the book talking about the structure of pluralism, and then a lot of time talking about the curriculum and why it matters. And then I bring the two together. the reason I think this book is timely right now is to create some, space in the education policy debates.

We’re kind of locked into a zero-sum game approach. And most of our policy debates, if you listen in on them are still operating within this public-private binary. You’ve got public schools, private schools, and maybe charter schools, but there’s a sense of school [00:08:00] sector combat. And what I hoped to do with this book is to help Americans pull from our current debates and say, well, it doesn’t have to be this dysfunctional.

We don’t have to diminish entire school sectors. In fact, most countries don’t. didn’t know until I started researching international education that the vast majority of countries fund a wide variety of schools as part of public education. So you’ve got the Netherlands that funds 36 different kinds.

You’ve got Indonesia and Canada. And at the same time, hold them all accountable academically. And so, normalizing that for an American audience, I hope, gives us some breathing room.

Albert: Let’s talk about that a bit, the international scene. I think there’s a lot to learn there. And actually, you yourself studied in Europe, right? So, discuss some of the different countries. Just mentioned the [00:09:00] Netherlands, but Britain, right? Has has a different kind of system. just catch our listeners up to what’s out there, different pluralistic school models that are in these countries that really deliver.

You know, expand educational opportunities for their students.

Ashley: Sure. So there’s a whole set of countries, most of them in Europe that are historically plural when the UK began to fund public education through assigning tax levies, they channeled those funds through the voluntary sector.

And that was the structure. all the students and the teachers had to sing from the same curricular songbook, but they were allowed to create their own ethos. That is historical. Those countries like Belgium. The Netherlands, UK, Germany, Switzerland, a lot of those countries are historically plural.

The United States used to be pluralistic as well, but for particular historical reasons, we moved against that model after the civil [00:10:00] war.

So you have these historically plural countries, and then you have many, many countries that have not been as successful with a unitary delivery model.

And so they are actually expanding the players in the room. So for example, I think it’s 171 of the 204 countries that UNESCO surveys have some kind of public-private partnership for delivering education. It is by far the norm. And now, your question about what they do to increase opportunity?

It’s not just the expansion of different school models. It is also attention to academic rigor. I think the important thing to remember is that no school system is perfect and that we do see movement both in good directions and negative directions across all of these systems.

So, [00:11:00] for example, France is historically plural, they fund different kinds of schools, but for most of the 20th century, actually, all of the 20th century, almost. democratize the liberal arts. They required all the kids in all the different schools to actually be learning the same content, even though they were delivered through different methods or different communities of meaning, whether they be Catholic, Montessori, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and whatnot, 20 years ago.

Well, let me just say this France closed their achievement gaps by sixth grade under that model. As soon as they reverted to a skills-based approach to the content, and relinquished that very tight curricular model, their achievement gaps widened. And even their, lowest performing kids, really, their first-generation kids really suffered.

And that’s exactly what we see in our [00:12:00] country. So these things are moving, they are moving. Australia, on the other hand, has been expanding the funding from the central government for different, different pluralistic schools for independent schools. In fact, the federal government in Australia is now the number one funder of independent schools in the country.

Albert: That’s fascinating to hear. I mean, just, you know, all the different models that are going around it’s like travel. I guess, you know, you go to a different country and you learn a thing or two because you’re, you get taken outside of the environments that you’re familiar with.

But, there’s been a lot of movement across a lot of the different states. Several states um, including my state here in Arkansas have expanded private school choice programs. Would you share with our listeners your insights about some of these developments and what you think their impact might be on K-12 education, particularly as it pertains to what you’re arguing in your book?

Ashley: Thank you. Yes, and Arkansas is one of those that has definitely expanded options. I guess the first thing I would say is I am a supporter [00:13:00] of for want of a better term school choice but I don’t use that term because School choice does connote kind of a market approach that if you just let parents choose, everything’s going to be okay.

And I guess what I would say to this is just a caution that choice is necessary but insufficient. That if I were looking at really successful school systems, and by that I mean school systems that enable a wide, diverse kind of school model and That ensure academic opportunity, those two things, access and excellence systems that get there don’t only give parents options to start new schools and whatnot.

They do. But they also have a bar academically. And so that’s the one thing I do worry about with some of these choice models that they’re not, they’re in an insufficiently [00:14:00] attentive to quality. But, in broad strokes, there’s no doubt that these models are changing the experience of many, many families and young people.

And for some families, giving them agency for the first time. And that is. that is meaningful and worthwhile.

Albert: Yeah. Well, you know, just to, press into this conversation a bit more you know, the private school choice programs across the states you know, they’re all not the same. And certainly you know, historically we’ve gone through different types of programs.

So, you know, we know we had Went through a phase of vouchers and then educational tax credits. And now really the strategy is universal education savings accounts. do you have thoughts about just each of those different types of programs as a means for expanding educational pluralism and, excellence?

Ashley: just want to reiterate again, that pluralism isn’t just a fancy word for choice. It implies. The kind of both and that kind of nitty-gritty compromise of [00:15:00] wonderful opportunities that differ from one another. And yet making sure that qualities are accounted for.

I would say all of these, every model has its own strengths and weaknesses. And I don’t have, a hierarchy of preferences. I would say education tax credits that are accompanied by assessments tend to be the smoothest insofar as they support schools rather than whatever.

You want to do to educate your child. And education savings accounts again, as you said, they differ, right? Idaho requires private school attendance. other states are looking for this unbundled account that parents can use. Choose their own adventure as it were. And again, those models work very well for some families and not for others.

What we do know about parents and Albert, your colleague, Patrick Wolf has done a fantastic job of researching this is that most parents need a navigator. And that’s something that [00:16:00] I would encourage all states to invest in a parent navigator to help parents choose the best quality for their own child.

Parents are very clear and all the national polls that I’ve seen that they want more choices, but also that they want more high-quality choices.

Ashley: So having, you know, the social capital component matters. I would say again my favorite scholar is Charlie Glenn. I will never forget the statement he made in one of his journal articles, quote, it is an appropriate goal of public policy to ensure that there are no failing schools.

And I would say that educational pluralism rests on the assumptions that number one, schools can’t be neutral with respect to values. So we should fund a wide variety of schools with different missions. and that education is a common good. We are all in this together and therefore it is appropriate to have [00:17:00] meaningful accountability of quality.

Now, I don’t think the United States has done a great job with accountability, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done and that we shouldn’t try.

Charlie: Well, I have to say you have excellent taste in education scholars because in addition to being a brilliant guy, Charlie Glenn is also a great guy.

Ashley: He is. He’s wonderful.

Charlie: But, you know, the thing I’m thinking about as I’m listening to you is that I feel like you’ve been listening in on my conversations because I had dinner with a group of us on Saturday night and one of the people I was having dinner with is a dear friend who I totally disagree with on education.

We always end up fighting about it and she runs a very I would call it like a pro status quo. We just need a little bit more money and any kind of choice is a bad kind of education organization. And, you know, it’s interesting because what she was doing is she was saying she was talking about specifically some of these choice programs in these different states and how she thought they [00:18:00] were absolutely horrible, because like the quality wasn’t any good in this state and what are they doing? And of course, my response to her. Was that, yeah, you know, you’re right the big mistake that these folks make and that you make is that you don’t concentrate enough on educational quality. It’s just that’s right She didn’t like that very much, but she’s used to hearing it from

Ashley: Well, I have to say I mostly live in New York City, but of course, my job is based in Baltimore and Baltimore is one of several very difficult districts in which there are entire schools with 5 percent proficiency.

Providence, Rhode Island has been the same thing. Let me just make a couple of responses to what your friend was saying. First of all, there’s no evidence that. Any one school sector is inherently superior. There are great district schools. There are district schools that do not serve kids.

Well, there are great private schools and private schools that under-educate kids. We [00:19:00] know this, there’s more variability within sectors than between sectors. the second thing I would say is that the best-funded district school is not the right school.

Ashley: There are a hundred reasons why a given child might not, thrive in a given school.

And, so the argument is that it must be this one model if we just gave more money, or conversely, the argument that school choice programs or charter schools are taking funds from the district school. That I would say confuses the means with the end. The district school is a means to the end of an educated Republic.

So too could be other mechanisms. They’re all means to the end. And so when someone talks about in these competitive terms, that choice models and charters are taking resources away [00:20:00] from district schools. I would simply say you’re confusing the means in the end.

Charlie: Well, I cannot approve of that.

That is very well said. Thank you.

Ashley: But I, also think it’s important to be able to say to a friend like yours, don’t you want what the Netherlands has? what about what Alberta, Canada has, actually, it’s interesting. I’m about to publish a paper with Cardis, which is a Canadian think tank called The Progressive Case for Educational Pluralism,

Ashley: This is not, nor should it be construed as a right-wing left-wing issue.

It’s really a human rights issue. It’s a cultural rights issue. I mean, we make a mistake when we play within those rules. I would pull back and say, but wait, it doesn’t have to be this way in the first place.

Charlie: Well, that is absolutely right. and, and this whole, You’re right.

The fact that it’s a real disservice the way this thing has been portrayed as a left-right issue because that doesn’t [00:21:00] help anybody. It’s just it’s really unfortunate. So, I’m here in Boston. I want to actually. focus a little bit on something that we do well in Massachusetts, which is that Massachusetts clear leader in voc tech schooling.

They’re public schools of choice that prepare students for careers and for college. In an age of massive college debt, you know, where does this kind of voc tech education fit into the wider portfolio of school choice or pluralism, as you better say, know, educationally pluralistic options available to state policymakers?

Ashley: Oh, I think that, yes, you are a national leader in vocational training. It’s fantastic. I would say a couple of things. First of all, it’s incredibly healthy to have secondary school options for kids that mean something to them and that give them workforce-ready credentials. One of the saddest things about the college-for-all approach has meant that kids are Showing up with high school diplomas [00:22:00] even at community colleges and cannot take credit-bearing courses This is just unethical for us to be telling kids You’re ready for higher ed when pell grants on remediation We haven’t prepared them adequately.

Most countries in Europe have only maybe 30 to 40 percent of their students who go to universities. Others are able to do what Massachusetts allows, which is. Just specialize and get specialized training that leads to a living wage. The thing that I feel uncomfortable with, and this is not about Massachusetts, but I am uncomfortable that we don’t give young people all the resources, the academic rigor, and the liberal arts background.

Up until they’re, in ninth grade, 10th grade, maybe when they can choose what they want to do fairly. And it’s [00:23:00] not a default mechanism for kids who won’t be going on to college. I think that’s really when you can marry this rich approach to the academic curriculum with appropriate high-quality vocational training, that is a win for kids.

Charlie: You know, I think that is one of the things that really made these schools so successful in Massachusetts when we did a big education reform a little bit over 30 years ago. one of the architects of that reform absolutely insisted that these voc tech kids pass all the same tests, held to all the same standards.

And they went crazy, you know, they were like screaming bloody murder now they are the biggest supporters of that and those students.

Ashley: You are so right Massachusetts really did this. I mean Massachusetts and the reform act in the 90s Was able to marry a Rick and create the virtuous circle, I should say [00:24:00] with a high-quality curriculum that had been back mapped from college entry with professional development that was aligned to that.

And with a testing, regimen that was also. Related to the curriculum. That is the virtuous circle. And it’s always been amazing to me that other States didn’t emulate that because of course the Massachusetts miracle made you all one of the best performers in the world.

Charlie: Well, we can’t like those other States because other than invoke tech, we have largely run away from it as well now.

Ashley: Yes. I know. Yes. I know. I’m afraid so.

Charlie: In terms of running away from success, in the period, 2011 to 2019 NAEP scores, both in reading and math, and this is before the pandemic obviously continued a decades-long trend of disappointing results and persistent achievement gaps.

I loved what you were saying before about the way places have closed the achievement gaps. Then, you know, [00:25:00] due to the pandemic, the trend really worsened with the 2022 NAPE results. So, you know, here we are a decade after Race to the Top, Common Core, and two national testing consortia. Why do we struggle so much with basic academic quality? I know that’s a broad question, but

Ashley: No, that’s the right question. And I would say it really goes back to the fact that for 100 years, we have as a country privileged. Skills over academic knowledge. And you mentioned a moment ago, that what really turned Massachusetts around in the nineties and so forth was focusing again on the academic content.

In the book, I spend an entire chapter talking about the history of how the United States intentionally took the path towards process, the skills of finding the main idea over. learning something in particular. It is hard to overstate the difference that has been made in our adult [00:26:00] population where we have adults who are not proficient in civics and history, for example, in our teaching profession, where the teachers themselves did not pass through a K to 12 system that was highly rigorous academically.

And I would say that Common Core for all of its merits, Did not really address that problem, and in math, the skills and content are very much aligned, but in English language arts. The skill of finding the main idea should be coupled with the mastery of important content, important texts, and all of that, and even common core assessments were skills-based and what we know about the knowledge gap. This is Edie Hirsch, but it’s also actually. Diane Ravitch wrote the best book about Dan Willingham at UVA and all of this. Natalie Wexler, of course, has popularized it in her book, The Knowledge Gap.

Knowledge is the key. We have not focused on [00:27:00] that as a core lever and it’s particularly important for low-income kids because well-resourced families Provide that background knowledge basically in their sleep to the kids by the conversations that travel to museums and so forth But if schools don’t bring that to first generation kids, they will not get it That’s why it’s an equity issue.

That is why my institute spends We wake up every day trying to help systems turn towards knowledge-building curriculum.

Charlie: Yeah, it’s making me think about, you know, the first time that I heard E. D. Hirsch talk about this stuff.

You know, I’ll never forget it. It’s just it totally was like, you know, that’s it I think you know, never forgotten it ever since he’s so right about that.

Ashley: Yeah, as are you?

Charlie: Another area where We’re having trouble, of course, with civics. The 2022 [00:28:00] NAEP revealed declines among eighth graders.

You know, less than a quarter scored at or above proficient. given the transmitting history in civics, you know, it was initially to be the primary purpose of American public education. Why does our K12 system seem unable to teach it?

Ashley: You’re completely right. All of our education documents and constitutional decisions and so forth, talk about the civic purpose of public education. And we’re not there. And I think it’s, several things. First of all, I am a historian, that’s what I’m trained to do. And so I can talk about civics all day long and I love it.

And it’s really important. And in the book, I do spend a whole chapter talking about social studies and why it matters. But first of all. civics has fallen prey to the problem of skills over content. it’s the process of reading a map rather than actually memorizing state capitals.

And I know it sounds old-fashioned, but that matters. you need to know where things [00:29:00] are, you know, and what century they happened in. So it’s the skills over content. Teacher prep has followed suit. Teachers don’t have to build up a body of historical knowledge. Number three. It’s changing, but civics is not tested in most states.

And yet we know where kids are exposed to rich content in social studies. They benefit even in their reading scores. so I think it’s those things. It’s also that there are political concerns about civics right now. Teachers are afraid. And this is where I think we need to drive home that exposure to diverse viewpoints.

Is not the same thing as indoctrination. And when I look at you know, our civic scores and our us history scores, it’s like 12 percent of 12th graders are proficient in us history. feel like our systems again, are thinking too small, civics and being an educated citizen is not just about how the U [00:30:00] S government works.

It’s why democracy matters. It’s why is a democracy fragile. How do monarchies operate? How did totalitarian dictatorships happen? And moreover, not just the history and the events in the military, but where is Iran? Why is it strategically important? geography and history and.

Philosophy and religion, do you know most European nations require comparative religion and ethics every year because part of being an educated person is knowing what other people believe, have believed, and might believe? And that’s while that, you know, so to be very blunt about it, if you’re in England and your child goes to a Catholic school, the child’s still going to learn about.

Marxism and Hinduism, for example. It’s not seen as indoctrination. It’s mere exposure that you need. And that is all part of social studies, as far as I’m concerned. So it’s, all of those things that [00:31:00] make it so difficult, but we have a very narrow understanding of what social studies is about and should mean.

Charlie: That is so true. I was teaching at the college level for a while. And I was kind of astonished how my students didn’t know that you know, happened before the turn of this last century. So I responded by torturing them by starting my class’s little segment called This Day in Boomer History and I would explain to him something from my childhood.

I thought it was so important They probably hated me for it, but that’s well

Ashley: I did the same thing. Actually, the reason I became interested was precise because of a similar experience when I was teaching at an open university in Louisiana and I was teaching Western Civ and American history to massive groups of kids, you know, 100, 200 kids in the survey course, I immediately started talking about philosophy and the ancient Greeks and I realized, Within day one that these students [00:32:00] had no background.

They thought Athens was a town in Georgia. They didn’t know what the word really meant. Yeah, well, that, there you go. I like REM that’s from my era, but, but, but, but the, but I, so I did the same thing, I slowed down and I started, and they loved it. There is nothing wrong with their minds.

And this is where I became insecure. I sensed that we are so under-challenging our kids, and if you want to read one report about this, TNTP’s report called The Opportunity Myth really shows, through all of their classroom observations, that we are systematically under-challenging our kids, particularly our low-income kids. That is what gets me up in the morning.

Charlie: Well, I just wrote it down. I’m going to get it. Thank you very much. so finally the country as a whole higher education, K through 12, they all seem so hopelessly balkanized.

Can you close by discussing how a robust traditional liberal arts education can help bridge these partisan [00:33:00] political divides and present young people with a more unified vision of humanity in our nation? And I think also, not to mention, Make people a whole lot more tolerant.

Ashley: Yes. So I love Bill Galston on this subject, the habit of civil tolerance, Which doesn’t mean anything goes.

It means having a strong opinion and being able to hold the strong opinions of others with whom you vehemently disagree. These are learned behaviors. And we look to the classroom to be able to inculcate this tolerance. and so what role does a high-quality liberal arts curriculum play in this?

So first I would just say by liberal arts, I do mean the traditional, Canon, but I also mean other people’s canons and rich voices from around the world, including our own and voices that have been forgotten. So I’m not making the argument here for dead white males. I just want to be clear about that.

But what the liberal arts [00:34:00] curriculum does is it potentially an E. D. Hirsch would say this is it can create a common speech community. You have common reference points. It’s Even if you disagree about what those reference points mean. And that’s where I think the pluralism piece really has its greatest heft.

Because parents don’t want their kids exposed to ideas that they consider nefarious. But if those ideas can be discussed within a community with which the parents feel an affiliation. So these chosen schools where the mission is clear, then it feels less like indoctrination because it isn’t in my view.

It’s more like information. And so the combination of diverse, learning environments and rigorous exposure to diverse beliefs and so forth. If teachers are given the support to lead those conversations, that’s a game [00:35:00] changer. What we call in the political science field, is the open classroom climate where children are exposed to multiple perspectives and have a chance to deliberate.

There’s a lot of research about this. That, that routine experience has an outsized positive impact on civil tolerance. This is something we need to promote. It’s a both and, and the most important thing I would close with on that point is that teachers really need the administrative support of their principals, that pedagogically.

Difficult conversations are important.

Charlie: that is so well said. this is just so, interesting. I wonder if you could finish by reading a paragraph or so passage from your new book.

Ashley: Sure. I’d be delighted to. So I’ll read a paragraph from the end of chapter four, which is about putting together the diversity of delivery and the content and having those pieces together.

And I’m making the point [00:36:00] that There should be schools that we wouldn’t send our own kids to, that are funded and that, it’s going to involve the discomfort of information that we disagree with. So, I will start. This is on page 83. As a thought experiment begun in the last chapter, picture a school that’s animated by critical race theory as an explanatory framework for the world.

Imagine students in such schools learning about our founding documents, for instance. through a monistic lens. Imagine further that they would study other theories of change, such as one focused on economic determinism or a more traditional empirical approach to U. S. history. My personal view is that theories about history and culture belong in the secondary grades when students can bring emotional maturity plus substantial knowledge about what happened, when, and potential whys.

But clearly, schools designed around a CRT perspective should [00:37:00] retain the right to inculcate those values from kindergarten on, just as Catholic schools revolve around the catechism, but in the pluralist world, would also teach about racial and economic theories of change. Students will be assessed through an IB-type model that asks them to place historical theories in conversation with one another.

If this is uncomfortable, it should be. That’s what pluralism requires. As my friend Chris Stewart said, educational pluralism means everybody gives something up. Exactly. At the same time, democracy does not require an open-door policy for all school types. Nor a yes to all classroom content. What are the appropriate boundaries?

What are the hardest cases? This is the next subject.

Charlie: Well, Dr. Burner, that is great and so timely. that’s just fantastic. gonna go out and get this book. I so enjoyed getting to hear what you have to say today. Thank you so much for [00:38:00] joining us.

Ashley: Well, I appreciate the opportunity and the conversation and I’m honored that you would buy my book and may the conversation continue.

Charlie: [00:39:00] Amen.

Albert: I really enjoyed that interview as well.

Albert: It sounds like a book that I’m going to pick up and just read through. Yeah, you and me both. Before we close out, though first the tweet of the week comes from our friend Neil McCluskey over at the Cato Center for Educational Freedom and he’s tweeting about I guess it’s his colleague Colleen Ronchich who testified Recently about early childhood education.

So, her testimony about early childhood education is available there on that tweet. Anyway, take a look at that. I think she offers some fair points about what we might or not do really in, in investing in early childhood education. So I think this issue is picking up a lot of steam.

So we’ll see how it goes. But hey, check it out. Well, Charlie, hey, thanks for co-hosting with me. It’s always a pleasure to chat, math, and chat all sorts of things under the sun with you.

Charlie: You [00:40:00] make me a smarter person, Albert. Thank you.

Albert: Well, the feeling is mutual. And I hope you enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are, and hope to see you again next week for our conversation with Dr. Stephen Kotkin. He is the senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the author of the definitive three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. So that should be a fascinating conversation. I’m looking forward to that. And I hope you are too. So join us next week for that conversation. Till then, be well.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts University of Arkansas Prof. Albert Cheng and Charlie Chieppo interview Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Education Policy director, Dr. Ashley Berner. She discusses educational pluralism’s role in improving K-12 performance, exploring European models and the impact of U.S. school choice programs. Dr. Berner analyzes universal ESAs and vocational-technical schooling, addressing persistent academic struggles and civic knowledge gaps. She shares how the potential of liberal arts education could unify a divided society. In closing Dr. Berner reads from her new book, Educational Pluralism and Democracy: How to Handle Indoctrination, Promote Exposure, and Rebuild America’s Schools.

Stories of the Week: Albert addressed an article from Newsroom  discussing how newer math teaching methods overlook insights from cognitive science findings; Charlie analyzed an article from Politico on the FAFSA disaster.


Dr. Ashley Berner is Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Dr. Berner focuses on the relationship between educational structure and state funding in democratic nations, religious education and citizenship formation, and teacher preparation in different national contexts. She published her first book on educational pluralism in 2017 and, in April 2024, released Educational Pluralism and Democracy: How to Handle Indoctrination, Promote Exposure, and Rebuild America’s Schools. She holds degrees from Davidson College (Honors A.B.) and from Oxford University (M.Litt. and D.Phil. in Modern History).


Tweet of the Week: