President’s Corner

A Six-String Salute to Public Education

by JOHN R. LAWRENCE

 I graduated from Louisiana High School in Louisiana, Mo., in l969. I was a good athlete though not a great one, made the honor roll but was not the valedictorian, and was active in student council but never an officer. I was just a pretty good kid who stayed out of trouble.


Back then I dreamed of being a world-class guitar player. I listened often to Eric Clapton in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. To me there never will be a better guitarist.

One day in my senior year, Mrs. Brown, a music teacher I revered, asked me to share my guitar-playing talents at the spring music concert. She wanted me to play and sing “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It wasn’t a Clapton song, but I had waited years for this musical debut. I wanted each chord to leave the audience breathless, screaming for an encore of John Fogerty’s opening lyric--“Left a good job in the city.” I don’t know how I sounded that day. I know I did my best.

I have the same quest for perfection in this column. I want each sentence to be just right for in this month’s writing I am responsible for a more significant debut, the introduction of a primary AASA future focus--“Stand Up for Public Education.”

Stand Up for Public Education is as ambitious as its words. Generally, the concept represents a decisive shift regarding the public response of educators to the edicts of the No Child Left Behind Act. Specifically, Stand Up for Public Education reminds Americans that many factors beyond those at the local schoolhouse contribute to student learning.

Few educators take issue with the tenets of No Child Left Behind. That our nation’s schools should employ highly qualified teachers, set rigid academic expectations and provide services in profoundly safe harbors is indisputable. However, the devil really is in the details, and NCLB embodies two fundamental flaws.

One is the law’s aggressive timeline of implementation. To validate this point one needs only to look at the time needed to provide “universal access” to America’s public schools. From the origin of public education fostered by Horace Mann in 1837 through the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century and subsequent Title IX and IDEA battlegrounds, it has taken more than 150 years to measure the “width” of the schoolhouse door. Yet NCLB mandates that all students crossing this wide threshold must attain proficiency within a decade.

Further, a recent Gallup Poll indicates that 80 percent of all Americans believe universal proficiency can be achieved and that the nation’s public schools are primarily accountable for it. This attitude reflects the second core flaw of NCLB. Although we wish it were so, educators cannot alone meet the titanic challenge of universal proficiency.

Stand Up for Public Education is a data-based initiative. It provides school leaders with vital information about a myriad of socioeconomic factors that inhibit the prospects of proficiency for all. The concept does not dispute the details of NLCB for when educators criticize No Child Left Behind, others view our concerns as an act of turf protection.

Instead Stand Up for Public Education is grounded on the principle that a nation of fair-minded people is wise and caring enough to understand the real-world conditions restricting short-term universal proficiency and to see the bigger picture. Therefore public school leaders have the duty to paint on the larger canvas and play our tunes the best we can. If we do, Stand Up for Public Education can become to educators what “Layla” is to Eric Clapton.

 

John Lawrence is president of AASA.