Features

Time to Re-Public the Republic

Rethinking public education to get schools ready for kids and kids ready for schools by PAUL D. HOUSTON
We live in a era where we hear a lot about threats to democracy. Certainly, America has its enemies abroad. What we cannot lose sight of as we search for terrorists is what we as a nation need to flourish here at home—an educated citizenry dedicated to our ideals.

For the American democracy to survive we must have citizens who are committed to the ideals of democracy, citizens committed to the work of the democracy, citizens equipped to operate in a democracy, and citizens who can find common ground in their differences and respect where common ground is absent.

The question that then arises is “What institutions currently exist that can make that happen?” Since our forefathers created the republic there has been only one answer and there is still only one answer—public education. As Benjamin Barber, one of the leading scholars on society and democracy, once said: “Public education isn’t important because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public.”

As with all our public institutions, public education has seen its share of struggles and shortcomings. It hasn’t always fulfilled its noble mission. Yet its history has been one of progress toward its goals of educating an entire population for the purpose of creating that “shining city on a hill” that our founders envisioned. We must ask whether that goal can be achieved if public education is weakened or fragmented.

There are those who claim that tax dollars for charter schools or support for home schooling or vouchers that would allow parents to send their children wherever they want to send them, public or private, fulfills the earlier mission of public education because in the broadest sense these would-be “public schools” are serving the public. We do not agree. How can systems based on individual or subgroup goals and values promote a broader common good? How can a system that uses public resources but is not subject to public oversight enhance our democracy? How can learning opportunities that are created and supported to encourage people to go their separate ways build a sense of public purpose? How can a system that assumes education is a private entitlement serve the public good?

We ought not fragment the current system based on private choice but rather re-connect to the common and public qualities of a system that promotes a sense of “civic virtue” and “the apprenticeship of democracy.” How can public education be reinvigorated to serve as a cradle of democracy?

System Flaws
To move in that direction we must ground the changes on an accurate assessment of the challenges we face. For 20 years, we have seen the public system criticized based on its supposed decline against past performance. The golden era that many long for was built on an exclusionary system that discriminated against children of color and those with learning disabilities. So for those who think that things really aren’t like they used to be, they are right—and that is a good thing.

Since Horace Mann’s era, public education focused on creating an opportunity for the entire population to have access to an education—universal access. The struggles of the system were against exclusion and toward forgiveness. Every benchmark for 170 years was around that: Brown vs. Board of Education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1976), Title IX, education for the homeless, access for illegal immigrant children and so forth. By the 1980s, that 170-year-old goal was essentially achieved. There was an open door and a desk for every school-age child in America.

urther, we had created a system that allowed people who had made poor early personal choices to overcome them. Remedial courses, the GED degree and the community college system created a “forgiving” system that was redundant, inefficient and uniquely American. It was a system that said you can make mistakes and overcome early deprivation and still pursue your dream, in marked contrast to other countries that forced early choice and achievement on children.

The exponential explosion of technology and the increased demands of the workplace, coupled with the centuries-old disparity between those who have and those who don’t have, exposed a major flaw in the system. It was not enough to provide access. We needed to create a higher standard of achievement to ensure that all children had access to their potential. The country started moving toward a standard of universal proficiency. Sadly, this was done by creating systems of accountability that are coercive and that fail to offer the personalized education that is required to capitalize on the varied strengths of children.

The reauthorization of ESEA in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind legislation created a national expectation that those children who had been underserved would no longer be allowed to fall through the holes in the system. No Child Left Behind was the federal manifestation of criticism that started in 1983 with “A Nation at Risk,” which leveled heavy but flawed criticism at the schools for their perceived failures. The “Nation at Risk” report targeted a perceived lowering of expectations and declining achievement as the reasons the nation was troubled. It also was based on an instrumental argument for education—that education was to be an instrument for a better economy. Twenty years later, many of those assumptions found their way into law.

The problem with the law and its underlying assumptions is the belief that the schools are the cause and that the solutions reside in tougher accountability and the creation of choice for the consumers. Overlooked was the reality that by achieving the goal of getting everyone in school, schools had to serve a broader clientele. Test scores were averaged over a wider portion of the population—a portion that had not previously been tested because they had not been in school. Most importantly the critics overlooked the fact that social failures created many of the disparities between students, and a massive reallocation of resources would be required to make a dent in the problem.

Higher Commitment
As the nation moved toward universal access there was a clear recognition that more kids in schools meant more classrooms and more teachers. What is currently lacking is the political will to recognize that moving every child to unprecedented levels of achievement will require that same commitment of resources.

But now the issue isn’t quantity, it is quality. We need even better leadership, teaching and curriculum. That means higher pay, better training and enriched curriculum. Instead, there is a reliance on shame and blame—a belief that punishing schools is enough to produce a solution, that putting pressure on the system will correct problems that originate outside the system. It is like trying to create a diamond by hammering a piece of coal. What is needed is pressure from all sides and time, and that means a systemic approach. Education is complex, particularly if you assume it is for more than mere academic achievement, if it is for creating an engaged citizenry.

The system, as currently structured, is built upon the “access” paradigm. Funding (average daily attendance), calendar (summers off so the children of the farms can go to school and still work the fields), curriculum (geared to sequential, visual learners who learn through receptive methods), teacher quality (determined by a set array of courses) and teacher quantity (so many per dozen children) is built upon Taylorism, named for the work of one of the first management consultants, Frederick Taylor, in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the industrial model provided the framework for education. To change the outcome of education requires a profoundly different system, and that should be our focus.

Two sets of conditions are at work: getting kids ready for school and getting schools ready for kids. Getting kids ready for school requires that systems be put in place that offset the early discrepancies in resources that face our children: better prenatal and postnatal health care for all children, universal quality preschool and Head Start programs and quality parenting classes to help parents do the hardest job they will ever attempt—to raise their children well. We have to create the village around our children and families so they are supported in the work of preparing the child.

An Early Connection
To do all this will require political will, financial resources and schools reaching out more broadly to their communities to create a web of support around children long before they reach school age. It also will mean working with the community to see that afterschool programs and summers provide enriched learning opportunities to allow for those whose learning speeds are slower the same chance to reach the goal as those who learn more quickly.

Getting schools ready for kids requires a complete rethinking of what education is and how it should be delivered. Schools must move from the lock-step, one-size-fits-all model that currently exists to a more personalized, individually tailored approach that capitalizes on what kids already know, what their learning styles offer, what brain research tells us about teaching and learning and what technology offers us.

And we must stay focused on the real goal of education—engaging children in meaningful learning activities that will lead them to a life of fulfillment that includes marketable work skills and attitudes and the ability to be productive members of their family and community. That system of education must assure us of an educated, caring, tolerant citizenry that will allow the democracy to flourish. It isn’t just about jobs. It is also about the joy of learning. We want children who want to learn. We want children who will embrace learning throughout their lives. To do this, we must make schools into learning communities where the intellect is fed and the soul is nourished.

Standing up for public education is not about papering over the cracks in the system—it is about imbuing the system with a new energy based upon the real needs of our dynamic society.

Democracy requires a citizenship that believes in the dreams of our founders and citizens who have the efficacy, the will and the hope to pursue them. Public education must give wings to children’s dreams so that our democracy can soar.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org