U-Ark. Prof. Albert Cheng on Classical Education & School Choice

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The Learning Curve, transcript, August 30, 2023

Charlie: [00:00:00] Hi everybody, and welcome to this week’s edition of the Learning Curve podcast. I am your guest co-host Charlie Chieppo and co-hosting with me today, I’m happy to say is Alicia Searcy. We are pleased to have Albert Chang with us today as our guest. Professor Chang is at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and is the director of the Classical Education Research Lab. So before we go get into that today, we are gonna start with a couple of stories as we always do, that are, making waves in the education world.

Alisha: And there were a lot of stories, Charlie, I can tell you that. [00:01:00]

Charlie: I know Alicia, I know had a little as my mother would’ve said, Aita about trying to figure out which one to cover because there’s so many, ’cause there’s so many going on right now.

But we have narrowed it down to one each for you. Even though as Alicia mentioned, we could do a separate podcast just on the stories that are out there this week. But we’re gonna try to give you the cream of the crop here today. Yes. So I’m gonna start with the results of a new nationwide poll of a thousand Democrats, a thousand Republicans, and 500 independents that just recently in the last few days came out and the poll finds increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of public schools.

Overall, 39% said they were satisfied with the quality of their public, local public school. And 49, 40 1%, I’m sorry. Were dissatisfied. It’s very interesting and I used to write polls for an organization I work for, so I probably get a little too excited about this polling stuff, but I found it very [00:02:00] interesting.

When you broke down the numbers, the people who were the least satisfied with their public schools were moderates who mean Republican, and 52% of them were dissatisfied, followed closely by Republicans, 51% of whom were dissatisfied while only about a. Third of Democrats were satisfied. We always, in this very polarized political world, have been trained rightly to look at what independents are saying.

And if you look at independence, they were dissatisfied by about a seven-point margin over those who were satisfied. As I looked into it I wanted to talk about this because I think there’s a lot going on in this poll. This is more evidence. It seems to me that more and more parents didn’t like what they saw when remote learning brought their children’s education into their homes during the pandemic.

And there’s also something of a modified version of the classic polling effect of, Congress thinks, but my member of Congress is great.[00:03:00] While the dissatisfaction was growing. Generally, schools are more popular among people with children under, over, I’m sorry, with children under 18 than they are with those who have grown children or who are childless.

And then of course there’s always the political implications of these kinds of things. I thought it was interesting because. 52% of those who say they approve of President Biden’s job performance also are satisfied with the schools, while only 31% of those are satisfied with the president’s performance or dissatisfied.

So there does seem to be, some political viewpoint on this. Last week in the Republican debate, many of us saw that. The return to the old Ronald Reagan proposal to eliminate the US Department of Education. A few of the candidates mentioned that. I tell you, as I watched that and listened to it, my own take was that, The US Department of Education is a sideshow.

I think that [00:04:00] common, the whole common core debacle confirms that regardless of whether we have or don’t have a department of education on the federal level, the important thing is to keep the money and the policy decisions in education local, all this, candidates are talking about it, historically, Education has not been a huge issue in, certainly in national campaigns and even to a certain extent in state and local campaigns.

So I think the thing I take away from this poll is it’s gonna be very interesting to see if increasing dissatisfaction with local public schools means that the issue does become an issue that is gonna be important in the upcoming national elections.

Alisha: Yeah, I hope that it does, and I think in the last few years, some of the polling that I had been hearing about education has become more of an issue, but it’s still, I don’t think it’s, getting up there in the top five.

And so that’s troubling to me, of course, because education is my jam.

Charlie: You know what I thought. And you’re right. That certainly was the case obviously in [00:05:00] Virginia, right? Where Younging got elected governor. So it may well be changing.

Alisha: It is, and I’ll tell you just the one question I had about that article, Charlie, is I’m wondering what exactly people are dissatisfied about.

I think I’d probably be one of those people that is somewhat satisfied with the job that Biden is doing. But I too am dissatisfied with our education system as a whole. But I’m wondering what people I would’ve liked to have seen maybe some of the cross tabs if it’s there, or even if they asked.

What exactly are people dissatisfied about? I think on one side you have those folks who are concerned about book banning and all of that, who feel that perhaps all of a sudden students are learning things that they don’t want them to learn. But then on the other side, you have people who are concerned, right about books being banned as an example.

Right and taking a comprehensive education out of school. So I’m curious if it’s that, if it’s the teacher shortage, there are a number of issues that we’re facing in education, so I would’ve loved to have seen [00:06:00] what exactly people are dissatisfied when it comes to public education.

Charlie: I’ll tell you, I think that I, generally speaking in my views are along the same lines as yours, but I don’t wanna be like Debbie Downer here, but:

From a lot of experience writing these polls and working on them. I think that if you saw the cross tabs and the sort of more detailed information, you might be a little bit disappointed because I don’t think you’d see, I don’t think you’d see, a lot of specifics there. Yeah, I think a lot of this stuff just has to do almost more with feelings without a lot of specific data, but maybe that can change over the course of a campaign where people are really paying attention.

Alisha: Yeah, and that’s what I’m hopeful about. At least put this issue on the radar of voters and make education something that really matters to Americans. Period.

Charlie: That would be great. I’ll tell you that would be life-changing. So what do you have for us, Alicia?

Alisha: As you said, there are so many stories and we could do a whole show just [00:07:00] on some of the stories out there this week, but I chose an Associated Press article entitled Texas Takeover Raises Back to School Anxiety for Houston Students, parents and Teachers.

And so if you’re following this at all, you know that the Houston school district has been on the hot seat for several years, and I haven’t followed every single detail, but my sense is that a lot of it has to do or had to do with kind of a dysfunctional school board, a lot of infighting, governance issues, those kinds of things.

And of course, per-student performance was also an issue, and it appears now with this new state superintendent that he’s decided to take over. The school district and it’s obviously creating a lot of angst for parents. And so I am one of those people who believes that sometimes takeovers might be necessary depending on the circumstances of the district.

I don’t believe that it’s a catchall and anyone should have the ability to do that. I think there are a lot of things that should happen [00:08:00] before you get to the place of taking over a district. And I will also add that I’m not a Real partisan person. I’m a Democrat, but I work with Republicans all the time, especially on these education issues.

But I have to say that there appears to be this move across the country of Republican governors or superintendents or state legislators. Who kind of wanna seize communities of democratic led areas. We’re seeing it in Georgia with the Trump indictments. All these new investigations that now Republicans wanna do to investigate the district attorney in Fulton County.

I think this argument could be made. When you look at, gosh, what’s the state now, Oklahoma, where the new Republican State School superintendent was threatening to take over the Tulsa School district, and as a result, the local superintendent resigned, I think sometime this week to essentially save the [00:09:00] school district.

And so now we’re in Houston where we have this similar issue. And so it concerns me that if you’re going to take over a district, Let it be because of the right reasons, not because of politics, Democrat, Republican, et cetera. And so this concerns me also, when you look at the article in particular, it talks about parents concern, teachers being concerned.

One of the things that it points out, Charlie, which is scary to me, is hearing that this state superintendent is requiring. More than a hundred districts in, excuse me, a hundred schools within the Houston ISD to essentially use a script when it comes to curriculum in each classroom. So teachers have to be scripted on everything that they’re teaching, and they have video cameras in the classroom.

Oh my god. This is a little bit scary. And when you think about the fact that we’ve got this teacher shortage, and even if in your community, if you don’t have a teacher shortage, teachers are frustrated and stressed out, they are walking outta classrooms, [00:10:00] right? You have superintendents who are leaving big turnover everywhere.

I think the last thing you want is to have more control over you. You can’t even teach what you need to teach and you have to follow a script. And so it’s gonna be interesting to watch what happens in Houston with this takeover. Will other states, other districts, deal with this? And I think we have to ask the question, when do we finally decide that we’re gonna take politics out and do what’s best for students, for teachers, and for parents?

Charlie: Guns and video cameras in the classroom? Is that what we’ve come to? Alicia? I don’t know. There is an authoritarian strain going through our politics these days. Yeah. That I really find very terrifying. It is.

Alisha: It is absolutely terrifying. Especially for folks who believe in less government. It seems to be that we’re getting more and more government involved.


Charlie: Isn’t that the irony? Isn’t that the irony? That is exactly right. That was good. Thank you. Got me thinking, which sometimes changes, [00:11:00] anyway.

Alisha: Our guest for today is Professor Albert Chang. He’s an assistant professor at the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. He’s a director of the Classical Education Research Lab where he conducts research on the effects of classical education on character formation.

Professor Chang is a senior fellow at Curtis and an affiliated research fellow at the program on education policy and governance. At Harvard University, Dr. Chang serves on the governing board of Anthem Classical Academy and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Christianity and Education.

He taught high school math at James Logan High School in Union City, California. After completing his undergraduate studies in [00:12:00] pure mathematics from the University of California Berkeley. He later returned to school receiving a master’s degree in education from Biola University and his PhD in Education policy from the University of Arkansas.

Charlie: Professor Chang, thank you for joining us today. We are really happy to have you and look forward to our conversation.

Albert Cheng:  Thanks for having me too. Glad to be here.

Charlie: All right let’s dive right in. Why don’t we start out more generally. Maybe you can begin by sharing your own personal narrative, how you became interested in K through 12 education policy, school choice, and discuss the importance of classical education in your philosophy about the mission of schooling.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, sure. So I got into education right after college. I became a high school math teacher at a local public school near my hometown out in the San Francisco Bay area. In California. Yeah. And I did that for a few years, did like a intern teacher training year, and then taught, I think three years after that, memory’s hazy.

But just wait. Yeah.[00:13:00] But yeah I got into education just as a math teacher. And I think what struck me. And my experience there was we focused a lot on teaching math content, the test scores. And this was in the middle of the heyday of no child left behind.

And, I just always had this feeling that something’s missing. It’s, it’s as if we were, we’re not, I. Educating the student’s character. It’s so focused on academic content and we’re missing some of these other elements of formation. After I taught for a few years and got interested in going back to grad school, maybe doing ed policy and it was there, I really got acquainted with just some.

Philosophers of the day, Charles Taylor, Alistair McIntyre. I think it’s like my first really serious reading of Aristotle and C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and I think I what

Charlie: the usual math teacher content.

Albert Cheng: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Mathematicians from the past. But, I think it was that there, really got this steeper level of understanding about, how we in, in contemporary times think about virtue [00:14:00] and character compared to how. People used to think about it, a thousand, 2,003,000 years ago. And so really just dove, more deeply into thinking about character education and trying to bring attention to that piece in education.

And, for the kind of early part of my scholarly career, I did some research with, about social-emotional learning, non-cognitive skills essentially running with psychologists and economists thinking about these things through that discipline and. I think eventually I just felt and discovered that the classical tradition is really the way that I thought about how character formation and virtue formation worked.

And yeah, just more recently have dove and immersed myself in the classical world to study character formation.

Charlie: You mentioned your background in mathematics and the fact that, going back a thousand, as you said 2000 years ago, a firm grounding in math was the hallmark of a well-rounded education.[00:15:00]

Your background is not like a lot of other K through 12 education policy wonks, and you talk about this role of math in your own education, how it shapes. This approach to shoot schooling, how it shapes your worldview today, even as you in some sense broaden out from just math.

Albert Cheng:  Yeah. Of course. So I majored in pure mathematics.

Charlie: Yes. Now, I keep reading that. What, tell me what that is.

Albert Cheng: What does that mean? It’s not apply. I’ll tell you a story. Like when I, when I was still an undergrad and I’m working on my degree, my parents would often ask me like, Hey wait what exactly are you gonna do with this?

’cause and usually, they ask that question after I was just talking about stuff that I learned, maybe making some remark about some really elegant theorem or fascinating theorem, from set theory or abstract algebra that I was learning about and, heard a lecture on or something.

And, I just personally found it. Elegant and fascinating. And it had no, in learning these things, thinking about its practical application was not [00:16:00] something on my mind. When you’re doing set theory, we just started you to find a set. What’s a set and how do we establish all the natural numbers from a set of axioms and we’re like just immersed in.

Thinking about these interesting questions, what’s a number? And so that kind of maybe gives you a little flavor of pure math. I start with definitions and then see where those definitions can go, what can you prove with these definitions? And with this set of theorems, can we derive other theorems and Right.

And you I felt like a kid like playing with, Legos or something. Yeah, doing something you love. Yeah. You’re just building, imagining

Charlie: My tangent on that Professor Chang is to say that I’m convinced now as a parent that there is definitely a correlation between men. When parents look at you and say, What are you gonna do with that?

Yeah. And how recently they have either received or paid a tuition bill. Oh,

Albert Cheng: Yeah. Yeah. That, that was I’m sure that was something anyway, I digress. But, yeah. And my parents would, yeah. What about do memes do something applied? Hey, I eventually didn’t heed their advice, [00:17:00] but look, everything worked out, so it was all good.

That’s right. They love what I’m doing now. Back to, you, you asked about how this contrast, say between pure math or applied math might underscore just, some of the paradigms that are going on in education. I’d say today there’s definitely a larger focus on applied, right?

I think for the past, slightly over a hundred years just with progressive error reforms and just pragmatism as a philosophy, we’ve grown, used to thinking about an education being good, if it’s useful, and I think what we mean by useful is does it generate marketable skills?

Can we make money off of it? Can we become. Economically viable and will it set kids up to have money and resources to satisfy whatever they need and want? And there’s really a utilitarian view to education. And I’m not here to say that, totally dismiss that. I think it’s important, we need to develop some skills and, having economic viability.

Important. In some sense, perhaps we swung that pendulum too [00:18:00] hard. I mean it’s, I think every math teacher can attest to this, right? You teach something and a student’s gonna say, why do I need to learn this? Am I ever gonna use this? This is like this perennial question that comes up in every secondary math classroom and.

I think pure math hints at, actually, there’s a different question to ask that maybe is this useful? Isn’t the right question that maybe doing something for its own sake has value? And I think that’s, I. Certainly, something I, is my own conviction about education, that it’s formation and some of it’s to learn things purely for their own sake.

To have joy and inquiry, right? To, find joy and wonder, and figuring out the nature of things to understand the world around you, to understand the human condition, to understand yourself you don’t study. Literature and the, humanities primarily just to get a job, but to answer these, Big questions that are important to life and as Socrates says it’s that [00:19:00] examine life that, that really leads to a fulfilled life. And that I think that’s, personally, that’s my view of what we should be after in education. And certainly that aligns with the classical view, right? It’s about, forming students. They grow in wisdom and virtue. They interact and understand what truth, goodness, and beauty are so that they can live a life.

Well lived, at the end of the day when they’re about to die, they can say, yeah my life was worth it. So I, it’s interesting the kind of, the pure math and applied math. I think it does illustrate some broader contrast in some educational paradigms.

Charlie: Yeah, I really want dig into that a little bit more because you direct the classical education research lab, and I have to tell you, I. Recently stopped after four years of being an adjunct at a local university here. And I have to tell you that the experience, and I was teaching a public policy writing class and the experience made me a crusader for the value of classical education.

[00:20:00] Because, it was so clear to me that while my students had. A number of talents I did not, that they were really lacking in that area and that it really affected, in particular, the kind of writing skills that I was trying to teach. Yeah. So tell us about this work that you do in the classical education research lab, why a classical education is so vitally important for instilling the kinds of habits of mind and character, and why Background knowledge necessary for a good

Albert Cheng: education.

Yeah, just a little bit about the lab. It’s essentially, the mission and the aim there is to bring data to bear on what’s going on in the classical education movement. So right now, we’re just unfolding before us right now, is this resurgence of interest in classical education movement.

We’re seeing schools form enrollment grow and with the lab, you know what I, what we were aiming to do here at the lab is to do research, empirical research to do two things. [00:21:00] One is to simply describe the condition of classical education. How many students are we talking about? How many schools do we have?

What are some systematic needs? For instance, teacher pipeline, teacher training issues. Leadership training issues. And so a lot of the, this movement has been pretty grassroots and we don’t really have a kind of bird’s eye view picture of everything that’s going on. And now that the movement’s getting big enough, they’re finding that we actually need to.

Describe the condition and state of things a bit better so that we can support it. And so really that’s one of the types of research we wanna do. And then, the other type is to simply subject some of the claims of classical pedagogy to an empirical test. For instance, one of the recent studies I did talk to a lot of classical educators and they might say, it’s important to teach kids poetry.

’cause poetry has some kind of mysterious magic to it. My kids love it. It conveys knowledge in a way that, non [00:22:00] poetry or texts that aren’t written in poetry can convey. And we partner with a local school here and we, for two week science unit integrated poetry into science instruction.

Wow. And the thought there was estimate that could the integration of poetry in science help. Enchant the students about the natural world around, could it create the sense of enchantment? Could it generate wonder as the students are just studying the first graders are studying birds, right?

You can do this kind of scientific textbook presentation of birds, and, learn all the Latin names and species genus and you could bore them to death, right? Or what we did was we curated poems like so Emily Dickinson has this poem, A bird came down the walk one day and did not know, I saw it bit an angle worm in halves and ate the fellow raw, right?

And she goes on, it’s just this fur, like she’s. She just imagine her like, I don’t know if she’s like in her yard or something and sees [00:23:00] this bird, and then she’s paying attention to all these details. She’s metaphor,

Charlie: like what are the results, do you have any data?

Albert Cheng: Yeah.

We measure things like, so for instance, we call this a measure of attentiveness. Yeah. And what we meant by that was do the kids start noticing the thing that they’re studying outside the classroom more often? Do they pick up. On particular details. And when we asked kids about whether they started noticing birds more, and if you see a bird, do you notice what color it is that the kids that got poetry, relative to the kids that didn’t get poetry, they measured higher on that.

They were noticing things about birds. And there’s this kind of sense of wonder and enchantment that we’re picking up on. That’s great. Yeah. So it’s fascinating to see and definitely. The kids that got poetry they caught something about the thing that they were studying because of poetry in a way that some nonpoetic some conventional way of presenting these topics wouldn’t convey.

Anyway it’s, it was [00:24:00] a fascinating study to see. Yeah. Yeah.

Charlie: That’s great. For decades in K-12 education and especially in some schools of education, This classical liberal arts education has, often been looked upon with suspicion or even sometimes outright hostility.

Could you talk about these tensions in K through 12 policymaking between, what has been the more prevailing progressive education theories and the liberal arts based in academic content as well as American education’s ongoing struggles on national and international measures?

Albert Cheng:  Yeah.

I think there’s a, a lot there and certainly there’s some controversies and things that people are navigating and figuring out, both, within, without the outside the movement. First of all I think a lot of the suspicion and hostility even would come from not a misunderstanding of what classical liberal arts education is.

For instance, a common misconception is that all classical schools do. Is teach texts written [00:25:00] by old white, dead European males, right? And it’s this really narrow kind of education. In, in reality, civilizations of all cultures throughout history, all across the globe have asked the same big questions, right?

What is a good life? Or, how should I live? What do I owe my neighbor? Why does evil exist and what do we do with it? And this is timeless questions. Yeah. Timeless questions that are common to, to all cultures across time and really classical education. I. Is broadly about entering into this, we call it a great conversation, right?

And in it, trying to discover what is it about what, what’s common in our humanity even amidst our differences, and yesterday we commemorated what the 60th anniversary of in Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech, right?

Yes. And, king, re you know I like to sign he has this little article that he wrote. And when he was an undergrad student about the importance of character education. Actually, it’s something I signed to, to my students sometimes, and, in that [00:26:00] essay and actually can look at a lot of his writings, letter from his letter from Birmingham Jail, like he is drawing from this tradition.

He is interacting with the themes that have been brought up, by the Greeks, by the white dead European males. That he is in conversation with these people and That’s the nature really of cla what classical education should be. It’s this participation in this great conversation, right?

What’s justice? What’s, what do we owe? What’s good? What should we be doing? So I think that’s, that’s probably one source or just one misconception that’s pretty common. The, I think the other misconception, maybe it’s more pedagogical. It would be that classical schools, all they do is just drill and kill teaching techniques and certainly, those schools of education and, progressive education theories, they take the opposite view.

Like they critique that approach. Now I’d say again that’s a little bit of a misconception of what classical liberal arts education is. So it is true that there’s a lot of memorization, particularly at the [00:27:00] younger grades. But the fact is that a lot of it’s done with, mo all of it’s really done with a lot of joy.

I’ll bet you, and I’ve seen this visiting classrooms, but go to a classical school, I. Go into an elementary school classroom and you’ll see kids doing a lot of memorization, they’re doing it with chance and songs. They’re walking down the hallways, reciting poems and recounting historical facts with songs.

And there’s music, and the students love it. There’s joy, right? I don’t know. You wanna call that drill and kill, but I don’t see any killing in that. ’cause the students are alive, and so while you might say progressive pedagogical theorists, they wanna make learning enjoyable.

They want to not simply teach kids what to think, but how to think. There’s this, those kind of common mantras. I’d say classical education does exactly that, right? It makes learning enjoyable. It’s there to cultivate wonder. It’s there to. Equip skills with students, with the skills for how do you learn to learn, how do you become a lifelong learner?

And that’s where you might hear grammar, logic [00:28:00] and rhetoric, right? Those that, the trivium there that’s the whole, that’s a heartbeat behind classical pedagogy. And yeah, there’s certainly some suspicion, hostility, but I think a lot of it’s just based in some mischaracterizations of what classical pedagogy and classical schools are actually all about.


Charlie: have to tell you before I turn you over to Alicia, I just have to say that I am one of those people who is a lawyer, but never practiced law a day in my life. And the one thing that I. Remember reading in law school that to this day affects me and I’m still just a fine. Breathtaking. Was the letter from a Birmingham jail?

I remember nothing else I read in law school, but I sure do remember that. That was a masterpiece. So anyway, with that, I’ll stop talking and turn you over to Alicia. And

Alisha: I appreciate that segue because I agree with you. I think the letter from the Birmingham Jail, I would argue, is one of the best pieces of American literature we’ve seen.

Yeah. And just so powerful in [00:29:00] so many ways. And even relevant today.

Charlie: Yeah. Yeah. You might argue more relevant to me.

Alisha: So this has been very fascinating and Professor Chang, I appreciate you helping to push my thinking because I am one of those people who asked, when am I gonna use this math ever again in my life?

Yeah. And funny as someone who supported the ideals of Common Core, As a state legislator, it was something different when I was sitting at the kitchen table with my daughter having to do the Common Core math and realizing that I think our hearts run the right place, but I’m not sure in implementation we did this Exactly right.

And so just this idea that. We have to teach students. It’s not just about what they know, but it’s also about who they are. Yeah. And how they think. So I appreciate that. And then I didn’t know like Charlie before this what Pure math was, and now I know. So thank Yeah. But I wanna talk about school choice a little bit.[00:30:00]

It’s an interesting time in our country when we talk about school choice and how. These conversations are moving these days, and so it, it certainly can be said for decades or longer that solid liberal arts education has been central and a successful part of private, religious and many higher-performing charter schools.

Yeah. Yeah. And so as more and more states are embracing school choice, including things like ESAs, can you talk about the relationship between expanding school choice? And the need to have classical learning shape, young people’s formative educational experiences.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, no that’s a good question.

Yeah, so I think personally, I, I think school choice is good policy for two big reasons. One, it, it enables alternative models and approaches to education to really take root right in, in just. What’s out there And I think it’s good policy. Secondly, ’cause essentially lets parents choose, right? An education that aligns with the values that they have and the hopes they have for their [00:31:00] kids.

And you’re asking about what’s the connection to classical education. I see classical learning. And classical education fitting exactly with those two reasons for why school choice is good policy. So for instance take just the classical renewal right now. I recently did a study of the growth of classical charter schools in Texas, and I found, what we found in.

Looking at the data was that enrollment has grown sevenfold in the last decade, and that’s compared to just a doubling in the other types of classical schools that are there. And my point in inciting that is it’s school choice policy that’s made that possible. Texas has long had a charter law and it’s let.

Classical charter schools form and classical charter schools and then delivering this option to that parents want. And actually, maybe a little closer to home here in Arkansas. I’m on the board of classical school that’s three years old now.

Here in Arkansas we just passed a, the Learns Act, right? So there’s an e s A program in the Learns Act and the funds are [00:32:00] available this school year, right? We just opened school a couple weeks ago and, we’ve been able now to avail ourselves that program to provide, our, the education at that school to families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Essentially school choice. Is allowing classical schools to, to take root as an alternative. And, and then on top of that, this is parents, this is what parents want. At least, not all parents, right? This is the nice thing about right choice, there’s a lot of freedom here to find what you like and what works and, but, Back to the Texas study that I did about classical charter schools there, we surveyed parents who sent their kids to classical charter schools and we had asked them what they prioritized in their child’s education and things like college and employment.

They were still important, but they were at the bottom of the list. At the top of the list was character formation, was growing wisdom, independent thinking, right? Things that are unique. To the classical model. And so again [00:33:00] we’re seeing school choice make possible the creation and growth of educational options that fit better and align with what parents, have been hoping for that their kids would have.

Alisha: Yeah, agreed. And so I’m gonna ask you about parents in just a second and I wanna talk about accountability for a moment. Yeah. And as states, particularly in red states, expand school choice options, What are some of the policy and accountability issues around school choice that you see developing over the next five years?

And as you mentioned parents, how should parents, state and local policymakers be thinking about addressing questions when it comes to enduring academic quality and just basic accountability?

Albert Cheng: Test-based accountability is certainly on, on my mind. Now that the school that I’m on the board of is availing themselves to the ESA here, there is a testing requirement, so I have to be thinking about that.

But yeah. So first of all, maybe just preface this by saying yeah, personally, like I’m a big believer and [00:34:00] just parents, they’re able to discern. The school is the right fit for a child. I guess you might call that market-based accountability. But yeah, I think parents have a good eye to these things and I think we do well to not shut out their voices and discount what they’re able to do.

But, that said, just, just to bring back testing. I can live with it. If testing’s gonna be one of these mechanisms to kinda ensure basic academic quality and accountability, I’d push policymakers to think about in addition to school choice offering testing choice. Borrowing a term, I think one of my graduate students who works with Mcay she wrote an op-ed in the Arkansas Denga a few months ago.

Since calling for testing choice, that essentially if we’re gonna, use standardized testing as a mechanism for accountability. So the danger in prescribing a specific test is that schools you then morph schools into something that they’re not right Because you’re giving a particular [00:35:00] test that may not align that well with.

Everything about their curriculum. And so here in Arkansas, I think we’ve got a pretty good solution. We’ll see how it works out over the next few years. But essentially there’s testing choice here in Arkansas. And so this classical school that I’m on the governing board of, I.

We’re able to support families who can’t afford this education with the Learns Act money, the ESA program here, and even though we’re required to take a test, we’re able to, within some bounds, select the test that we like to use. And fortunately, the classic learning test is this testing company out there.

They’re developing the standardized tests, that’s a lot more aligned with classical curriculum, right? And so because that’s available, we feel that we can be held accountable, but also stay true to, our educational and pedagogical paradigms as well. So anyway, I don’t know, te this is gonna be a big issue I think.

Yeah, looking ahead.

Alisha: Definitely, and [00:36:00] let me just ask for clarification. When you say test choice, are you saying you have to test or have to have some assessment, but you get to decide which one it is rather than, let’s say, for example, using the state. Assessment.

Albert Cheng: Yeah. And so that’s exactly what it’s here in Arkansas.

Alisha: Gotcha. Okay. So you are in higher education, and I think it is safe to say that there are many schools of education that are not exactly supportive of school choice policies or maybe even parent-driven educational models. And so as parents and school choice leaders are looking for teachers to form the faculties of these new school models, including homeschooling pods, micro schools, right?

All of those kind of new things that are coming on board, where should we be looking for pro-school choice teachers who are also well-educated in academic content areas? Yeah,

Albert Cheng: Yeah. Great question. I wish I knew the perfect answer for this. Yeah, no, I, I’ll tell you, even just being in, in the middle of the classical world, this is a big issue.

Teacher pipeline, right? Where do we recruit teachers that, would be aligned with the vision and mission of these schools? If I had to propose something, I think we need to really redouble our efforts to create alternative educated prep programs. If we’re gonna, if we’re gonna find the teachers and leaders for tomorrow or even now, right?


We’re gonna need to do this kind of institution building. And fortunately, some of it’s happening I’ll just tell you within the classical world, there’s actually a lot of professional associations. So the Society for Classical Learning, for instance, they’ve been building lots of programs and professional training offerings for school leaders, and I can think of the Searcy Institute Great Hearts Institute.

These organizations, put on these conferences and workshops and offer all sorts of online resources courses. I think you’re finding associations spring up and I think you’re seeing some movement in higher ed too. There’s a handful of higher ed institutions, again, they’re mostly private institutions.


That, haven’t really been, for a long time in the business of training teachers for the traditional public schools that are creating their own teacher prep programs. You think of University of Dallas Hillsdale College, there’s a lot of others there that are starting and building new teacher prep programs and offering them for, not just people that wanna teach say in private schools, even people who want to have leadership in homeschooling in the homeschooling sector.

I have a friend of mine that’s actually, taking some classes from one of these groups., and she teaches in a hybrid homeschool-type environment, right? And so I think there’s some movement going on, but I don’t know if you’re listening and you’ve got, if you got financial means, I just encourage you to invest in some of these institution building efforts ’cause.

Yeah we really need to bolster up the teacher and school leader pipeline in order to really support these schools and sustain them in the long term.

Alisha: Excellent. That’s good to know that, that gives us hope, right? Because we have to make sure that there are professionals who are prepared to go into these kinds of models.

Yeah. So it gives us hope to know that some of them are in existence already. Yeah. Yeah. So last question for you. I think it’s safe to say that during Covid, there are a lot of traditional public schools that didn’t quite meet the moment when it comes to educating our children and it perhaps drove a lot of parents.


To be a little bit uneasy and some to have some unrest about what’s happening in our schools. And I think as a result there’s been a great expansion of school choice, interest and options across the country. And so where do you see state and parent-led K 12 education policymaking heading over the next five to 10 years?


Albert Cheng: Yeah I’m a terrible gazer at Crystal Balls, so tough for me to describe the future, but yeah. Look, I think the genie is outta the bottle. School choice is here and the more parents get a taste of what it offers, I think it just builds more momentum for this.

So I think it’s here to stay and I think the. Recent expansion that we’ve been seeing across states is, will continue. Yeah. I don’t see [00:40:00] a reason to think that it would. Reverse at all. But, I, I think with that being the case, yeah I think, what kind of would keep me up at night is, as these policies expand, are we gonna have the schools and educators to meet that demand?

What we were just discussing in the last question, teacher and school leader pipeline. And really I think the, I see, the trend is gonna go, is gonna continue. And where the hard work is gonna be. That we all need to step up and rise up to tackle is simply building out schools, right?

Build out schools. How do we support them? How do we raise enough resources? Whether it’s teachers and whether leaders, whether it’s facilities, whether it’s, yeah, all these things that we need to provide. A good education if parents want this. And it would be a sad thing that the reason, these policies just waned and just gathered dust and disappeared was because we didn’t have schools and options available and, that we couldn’t sustain some of these providers. And yeah I’m hoping that [00:41:00] we, we can all do our part and, in our communities and whatnot to do the work of institution building and make sure there’s always more and better educational options for parents that want this.

Alisha: Absolutely. As a parent myself, I absolutely agree. Yeah, so thank you so much for being with us. I learned a lot today. You gave us a lot of great food for thought. Yeah.

Albert Cheng: Great. It’s great to be here.

Charlie: You really did, Dr. Chang, this was fantastic. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, you’re very welcome.

Charlie: This week’s tweet is from Patrick Wolf, who like our guest today is in the faculty at the University of Arkansas, and I’m a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute. And Professor Wolf has been a real friend to [00:42:00] pioneer from a long time, and in fact, last week I was doing some writing about this new study that he’s come out with about urban charter schools around the country and how their funding stacks up against district schools in the same cities. So our worlds are coming together because Patrick Wolf, who is, as I said, on the faculty at the same university and the same school within the university as today’s guest, Professor Chang was tweeting a couple days ago about asking people to check out a long-form piece by Paul Valles, who had run for mayor of Chicago and lost very narrowly last fall, and his former head of the Chicago Public Schools, and Val wrote about this charter school study that Patrick Wolf and others had just done. I would urge you to take a look at that tweet by Patrick Wolf and just to close the circle. It turns out, as you’ll hear more later. Paul Ballas is our guest next week here on the learning curve, so make sure to tune in next week when Paul Ballas will indeed be the guest.


He’s got a lot to talk to us about between this new study between his experience narrowly losing the race or Mayor of Chicago or race, related to what Alicia and I were talking about earlier, where education was a very big issue. Yes. Yeah, in the local race. So I’m very eager and very much looking forward to listening and hearing what he has to say.

Alisha: Same. I’m looking forward to it as well.

Charlie:  Oh yeah. It’s really gonna be an interesting one. Until then, Alicia, thank you so much. As always, it’s a pleasure for us to do this together. I really thoroughly enjoy it, always. And yeah. And thank you to all of you for joining us on Learning Curve, and we will see you next week.[00:44:00]

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Charlie Chieppo and Alisha Searcy speak with Albert Cheng, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Professor Cheng talks about the importance of classical education for guiding educational philosophy and practice and shaping the character of students. He reflects on how mathematics informs the kind of education students need in the twenty-first century and discusses tensions in K-12 policymaking between progressive education theories and the liberal arts based in academic content, as well as debates over school choice, educational content, and accountability.

Stories of the Week: Charlie discussed poll results in a piece by The Center Square revealing voter dissatisfaction with the quality of public school education. Alisha discussed a story covered by AP News about Texas law that enables state officials to intervene in school districts leading to concerns about potential censorship and loss of local control.


Albert Cheng is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Education Reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. He is the director of the Classical Education Research Lab, where he conducts research on the effects of classical education on character formation. Professor Cheng is a Senior Fellow at Cardus and an affiliated research fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Dr. Cheng serves on the governing board of Anthem Classical Academy and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Christianity and Education. He taught high school math at James Logan High School in Union City, California after completing his undergraduate studies in pure mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley. He later returned to school, receiving a master’s degree in education from Biola University and his PhD in education policy from the University of Arkansas.