President’s Corner

A Greater Appreciation Once Abroad

by John R. Lawrence, president, AASA

At our National Conference on Education in 1999, former AASA President Dan Domenech began his opening remarks to the membership in a most memorable way. He simply said, “America, is this a great country or what!” Dan used that line frequently throughout his presidency and his timing was always terrific.

Recently, as part of my presidency, I had the privilege of representing American school leaders during an international study mission to Italy. Honestly, I always had viewed such journeys as rather “vanilla” in terms of substance and of more protocol than purpose. But I was wrong, for although I enjoyed the sights and the sounds of the Mediterranean (who wouldn’t?), the trip was also meaningful work, though sometimes pressurized.

As our association’s primary spokesperson I found myself sometimes defending not only America’s public schools but also America’s foreign policy in the days preceding the war in Iraq. However, the experience ultimately left me with a greater reverence for our nation and its many blessings and a heightened awareness that the gap between our nation and other so-called first-world nations is larger than my former rose-colored observations of old-world charm.

The highlight of my Italian excursion was a meeting with the minister of Italy’s state- operated public education system. She was the picture of grace, knowledge and diplomacy. Through translators she shared the bullet points of her nation’s new educational reform package. By chance it was on that very day that this landmark legislation was forwarded to members of the Italian parliament. The act, which subsequently was approved, is in many ways a mirror image of No Child Left Behind and provides evidence that even in dissimilar cultures the tenets of educational reform are global.

However, what is not global is the comparative power of America’s public schools. Unlike our kind hosts in Italy, we do not operate as a federalized system, but as school systems representing the vision and governance of local communities. Within this localized framework educators are hired, bus routes are established and school calendars are determined. The vast majority of school decisions are not made in Washington, recent developments to the contrary. We often take these things for granted. We should not. Local decisions about local schools are not the norm on our planet.

America’s public schools serve all children regardless of wealth and ability or disability. Most foreign countries do not provide such universal access and any comparison of student achievement between students in the United States and students in other industrialized nations is truly an apples-to-oranges exercise. AASA’s new initiative, “Stand Up for Public Education,” proclaims this lyric. The assured right of passage through the doors of the local schoolhouse is a national strength.

Finally, America’s public schools are characterized by efforts to develop the whole child in both curricular and extracurricular ways. It is fair to say that some schools place too much emphasis on interscholastic athletics, the fine arts and a myriad of other before- and after-school programs. It is also fair to say that most other developed nations, including Italy by admission, fail to provide students with enough outside engagements. In a highly diverse and multicultural world that’s too often in conflict, the value of extracurricular activities for students may best represent the non-commercial meaning of “priceless.”

At the risk of sounding too warm and fuzzy, I think America really is beautiful and that God, by any belief system, did “shed his grace on thee.” I also think that Dan Domenech captured it pretty well: “America, is this a great country or what!”

John Lawrence is president of AASA.