Friday, September 12, 2014

What Do We Want from Public Schools?

Ok students, let’s start today with a quick multiple choice question.

Which of the following represents the best reason for having a highly functioning system of public schools?
a)    economic stability
b)    social stability
c)    political stability
d)    joy of the individual

Yes I know. I hated these “best reason” questions when I was taking standardized tests, too. It always seemed to me that these questions were asking you to guess what was in the test makers head. Nonetheless, your answer to this question will go a long way to determining what kind of schools you champion.

If your answer to the question is a) economic stability, you are part of a long tradition in American education that sees education for its utilitarian value. One early proponent of the economic stability argument was Booker T. Washington, who argued that the best way for newly freed African Americans to find their place in an American society that they had been brought to in chains was to learn a trade. Later on, public school districts throughout the country built vocational schools where high school students learned practical skills to ensure employment. In this day and age, when a high school diploma seems inadequate for earning a living wage, those who focus on economic stability are likely to champion educational standards that promise to get students “college and career ready.” If your concern is maintaining the economic status quo, you may choose economic stability as the goal of public schooling.

If your answer is b) social stability, you also have history on your side. As Michael Katz has shown in his book The Irony of Early Education Reform, a driving motive behind the reform movement in public education in the 19th century was to convert the children of factory workers and recent immigrants into “middle-class standards of behavior and tastes.” Public education was seen as a way to “control the rabble”, if you will. It was a way for the “haves” to control the “have-nots.” Many charter schools have apparently bought into this philosophy. Schools, such as those run by the KIPP chain and those patterned closely after KIPP, focus on compliance and test scores. Students are subject to rigid, military-style discipline regimens and blatant shaming in order to force compliance. So if you are a champion of charter schools, your bias may be toward social stability as the best reason for good public schools.

Beginning with my first day of school, I learned that in America we lived in a democracy and that the preservation of that democracy was dependent on an educated populace. In school I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the National Anthem, and took courses entitled American History, Civics, and Problems of Democracy. So surely answer c) political stability is an appealing answer. One of my education heroes, John Dewey, in his book Democracy and Education, said that the aim of education in a democratic society was the creation of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. A beautiful sentiment, but a messy one. As a child of the 60s, I know just how messy this can be. During that period I exercised my rights as a free (and admittedly immature) individual to take to the streets in protest for civil rights, freedom of speech on my college campus and against the Vietnam War. It was (sort of) political democracy, but it wasn’t very stable.

What the corporate education reformer wants from political stability, I believe, is something very different from what Dewey wanted or what I was protesting about. As E. Wayne Ross has pointed out in his introduction to Volume II of Defending Public Schools, the real political status quo in the country today is neoliberalism. As Ross puts it, neoliberalism represents

            “policies and processes that permit a relative handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, and is characterized by social and economic policy that is shaped in the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, and government deregulation are some important principles of neoliberalism."

Understood in this light, the education reformer looking to preserve the political stability of neoliberalism, might argue for the positive impact of competition on public schools. They might champion school choice in the form of for profit charters, parent vouchers, and parent trigger legislation. They might seek to weaken unions and subject teachers to a “business model” based on a perversion of Darwinian survival of the fittest, with the fittest being judged by student scores on standardized tests.

I borrowed the term “joy of the individual” from the aforementioned Michael Katz, who says throughout its history, individual joy has never been the focus of public schools. So what might we think of those who choose d) joy of the individual as the best reason for having public schools. Are these only the raging looney-fringe idealists? What might schools look like if the individual student were at the center of our thinking?

A school focused on the joy of the individual would start, I think, with an emphasis on engagement, rather than compliance. Engaged students need the  guidance and direction and background knowledge a skilled professional can provide, and they need some routines established so they can get out of their own way and learn, but they do not need the harsh discipline practices seen in so many of those reform charter schools.

Engaging individual students will require a broad and rich curriculum including plenty of time for the arts in all of its forms and for physical education and recess. A school focused on the joy of the individual will also be required to provide lots of choice. Choice in what books to read. Choice to pursue topics of personal interest and choice in how learning is demonstrated.

But choice is not sufficient for this focus on the joy of the individual. Since the individual must also live and work in a society, this rich curriculum would also include the study of the vast array of cultures in that society, readings of the great works of many different cultures and opportunities to talk and meet with people from many different cultures.

This kind of education cannot be done on the cheap. It cannot be done if we focus on “college and career ready”, instead of life ready. It cannot be done in an atmosphere of rigid compliance. It cannot be done in an atmosphere where educators live in fear of their jobs. It can only be done through a real commitment to our children, every one of them.


This focus on individual growth in public education may seem to be pie-in-the-sky, but think for a moment: If you were about to send your child off to school for the first time, what would be your dream education for that child? I think your dream would come pretty close to answer d above, joy and personal fulfillment.