Are Cultural Clashes Over K-12 Normal?

Frederick M. Hess
3 min readMar 9, 2023

This winter, I’ve talked with a couple dozen reporters on the topic of K-12’s “culture wars.” In these conversations, they often make clear that they regard these fights as wholly unusual — even unprecedented.

For better or worse, I think it’s more accurate to say that these clashes represent something of a return to normal. Now, after a bit of reflection, I realize this can seem like an odd statement to those (such as many reporters) whose interest in education is framed by the developments of the past couple decades.

If anything, the relatively technocratic fights of the past few decades — over things like data systems, testing, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and standards — were a break from the more value-laden fights that have historically dominated our school debates. (Of course, even during the high-water mark of Bush-Obama reform, cultural clashes infused even seemingly wonky fights over the Common Core or testing.)

Historically speaking, I think it’s fair to say that value-laden fights about schooling have been very much the norm. In the 19th century, the big debates — such as those around compulsory schooling, what languages could be taught or spoken in school, who could attend school, and the status of parochial schools — all turned on religious and ethnic divides.

Twentieth-century urban school politics were dominated by brass-knuckled ethnic and racial competition for jobs and patronage. Curricular disputes over science frequently turned on questions of religion and faith. At different times, in different places, education was consumed by fights over communism, school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, efforts to outlaw private schools, efforts to legalize home schooling, teen pregnancy, the role of faith, and much else.

There were the ferocious fights over Jim Crow, desegregation, and busing and also a steady stream of less-remembered clashes around curricula and educational access marked by animus toward students and communities of German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, East European, and Mexican descent.

I think of the reporter who kept asking me whether today’s value-laden fights weren’t simply a distraction from the “real” work of improving school systems. All I could say, over and over, was that concerns about the values schools are propagating have historically dwarfed those regarding the particulars of “systems” reform. The central questions tended to be things like: Who gets taught? Which languages get spoken? What curricula are used? What symbols are acknowledged?

In retrospect, it may prove to be something of a historic anomaly that we’ve spent the better part of the past two to three decades so intently focused on the levers of school improvement rather than on the value-laden stuff that happens inside schools. The intense focus on accountability systems and teacher evaluation seemed unremarkable at the time, like it was perhaps just a reflection of education’s growing importance in a knowledge economy. In the end, though, it may prove to have been a byproduct of a particular political moment.

If any of this seems either interesting or surprising, it’s worth picking up a bit of education history by someone like David Tyack, Maris Vinovskis, John Hope Franklin, Lawrence Cremin, Jeff Mirel, Diane Ravitch, James Anderson, Nathan Glazer, or Pat Graham. Whether the author is regarded as left or right, the centrality of culture pretty much shines through.

Anyway, that’s my historical deep thought for the day.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.



Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.