Book Review: Conform (Beck)

Glenn Beck is mostly known as a radio and TV personality, but he has also written several books, including this 2014 work on public education. Conform: Exposing the Truth About Common Core and Public Education is a call to reform America’s public education system. Beck thinks this reform can best happen by the federal government leaving education to the states, states passing Right to Work laws to limit the power of teacher unions, states introducing a voucher system, and states reforming teacher certification. This book is an important and informative read for all Americans, whose tax dollars go to support this educational system.

Part One of Conform is on the “Truth About Education,” where Beck exposes myths about American public education, including the following:

  • Public schools need more money.
  • Teachers’ unions are looking out for students.
  • Good teachers need to attend a college of education.
  • Common Core is state-led and rigorous.
  • Schools should teach students sex education because parents don’t.
  • Home schooling is inferior and is bad for the collective of society.

Beck shows that America is spending more money on public education than ever, with an almost 300% increase (after adjusting for inflation) in spending on students since 1970 (p. 6). Driving this increase in cost are the teachers’ unions, who have secured automatic annual raises for teachers rather than raises being based on performance. Add tenure to this, and you have teachers with guaranteed employment and little motivation for improvement. Teachers’ unions are concerned with getting theirs, not with producing the best teachers and the best education for kids. As Beck says, “Mediocrity has become the accepted norm in far too many American government schools” (p. 42).

Compounding the problem is the requirement by states for teachers to receive a degree from a college of education. Many colleges of education train teachers in progressive ideology and focus on methodology rather than mastering the subject one will be teaching. Worst of all, colleges of education are known to provide some of the easiest course loads and thus attract weaker students. Most teachers come from the bottom two-thirds of their class, with half of teachers coming from the bottom third (p. 50). One would think there would be alternative ways of achieving certification, but this would loosen union control of teacher training. So we have a situation that would be considered disastrous in the private sector—“The ed schools have a guaranteed market and are shielded from competition” (p. 52).

Local public schools are also falling under the increasing control of the federal government. This is seen in the Common Core State Standard Initiative, which is said to be “state-led” and provide “rigorous” standards for students, neither of which is true. The federal government even has its hands in school lunches, using tax-dollars to provide free and discounted lunches for far too many students and then trying to control what kids are eating by forcing them to eat only healthy foods.

Beck argues that we need educational options and that parents should be in charge of the decision as to where they school their children. Educational options make schools compete for students, and as Beck says, “Competition between schools is the best formula for success because it incentivizes superior performance” (p. 164). Charter schools are one way to accomplish this competition. Though publicly funded, charter schools are given greater freedom than traditional public schools to innovate and create unique learning environments. Another educational option Beck defends is home schooling, which takes heavy criticism from the educational establishment. Listen to this statist quote from the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union: “The NEA believes that homeschooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education” (p. 141). This quote shows just how much the establishment fears the competition of home schooling—and why we need it.

Part Two of Conform is a much shorter section on “The Way Forward,” where Beck lays out some suggestions for improving the public educational system.  Beck’s proposals include implementing a voucher system where parents can take their tax-dollars to private schools, limiting teacher unions with Right to Work laws (as done in Wisconsin), innovating education with technology, and abolishing teacher certification (and simply hiring teachers who majored in the field they teach).

Beck is right in his criticisms of the government education system. But while reading this book, one is left wondering if Beck does not go far enough. With his eye-opening description of America’s public schools and his praise of home schooling and private schools, the question becomes—why not do away with government-run education entirely? Why not privatize the whole educational system? Beck’s desire for reform of the public schools is noble, but he fails to identify the foundational problem—and that is that American government schools have been completely secularized. Public schools teach an atheistic worldview, which leaves the curriculum watered-down (as seen in the neglect of western civ) and leaves students with no basis for moral thinking or living. Beck sees this in the sexual immorality taught in public school sex education, when he says, “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the problem [teen sexual activity] started growing after we kicked God out of the schools” (p. 132). Unfortunately, Beck in not consistent in identifying this secularization as the source of the other problems with public education. It’s hard to rebuild a house with no foundation.