Putting the Public Back in Public Education

What it would take to ensure that nobody’s child is left behind
by Hannah Lobel
January-February 2009
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This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, read  The People’s Professor ,  America 101 , and the online exclusive  Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library .

The public schools have been bad and they deserve to be punished.

That’s the mantra Americans have heard for the past eight years as politicians have scrambled to appease citizens battered by apocalyptic headlines about the state of the educational system, stories that detail how public schools are both epic disasters and the country’s only ticket out of global decline, increasing poverty, and a coming society of dimwits.

And how did an administration hell-bent on warding off any responsibility for its own actions (torture, irresponsible war, a gutter-dwelling economy) react? They’ve assured us that failing schools will be held accountable. They transformed our society’s greatest obligation into its greatest sin.

In 2002, with support from both sides of the congressional aisle, President Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind, federal legislation designed to punish schools into delivering higher test scores. Reformers jumped on the accountability bandwagon, brandishing the joys of abandoning the public schools through homeschooling or providing families with government-funded vouchers for private schools.

The public and its politicians have spent so much time placing blame on unyielding teachers’ unions, stagnant administrative bureaucracies, and mind-numbing curricula that we’ve neglected to reflect on our own role in the problem. Americans need to reinvest, and not just by pouring more money into “the system.” Citizens need to rededicate themselves to the promise of public education, a tradition founded on the ideals of educating every child, unifying a country that’s been diverse since its inception, and instilling the civic-mindedness required of citizens in a healthy democracy (see “America 101”).

So what can our elected representatives do to help turn the tide? A good start would be simply sending their children to public school. In 2007 a Heritage Foundation survey found that, while just 12 percent of American students attend private schools, 37 percent of U.S. representatives and 45 percent of U.S. senators have bailed out on public education and sent their kids to private schools.

The goal of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s study was to shame privileged legislators into granting less well-off families the same “school choice” via vouchers. A different sort of shame is in order, though. If the country’s representatives were invested in the system for the sake of their own children, not just for votes, our schools wouldn’t be morphing into mindless test-prep centers. Teachers wouldn’t be crafting heartbreaking appeals for donations for school supplies on sites like DonorsChoose.org.

Right-wing icon Grover Norquist was on to something when he helped to realign the ’90s political landscape by bullying conservative candidates into pledging never to raise taxes. Citizens should exert the same pressure on their representatives to sign a new pledge that personally commits them to public schools.

For most parents, the situation is far trickier. Countless mothers and fathers do yeoman’s duty propping up their public schools not only with fund-raising initiatives that put the bake sales of yore to shame, but also clocking so many volunteer hours that they more or less serve as unpaid employees.

A sinister meme has begun to infect middle-class communities, and it goes like this: If you really loved your children, you’d scrape together the money to protect them from the horrors of public schools and send them to private school.

The constant refrain of what private schools do better can be deafening: Smaller classes give students more teacher attention, kids are free from the tyranny of standardized testing, and collegial campuses offer functioning facilities. Perhaps most importantly, private schools haven’t drained their curricula of arts and humanities classes. These laboratories of creative thinking have been steadily stripped from a cash-strapped public system ruled by a single-minded fixation on math and science scores.

There is, however, a strong case to be made for the advantages of public schools. They offer more advanced placement and college-credit classes, vocational courses, and work-based learning programs than private schools do. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy found that, after controlling for background factors like student achievement before high school, a family’s socioeconomic status, and parental involvement, public school students performed just as well on achievement tests as private school students did, and made it into college at similar rates.

Then there are the intangibles to consider. For instance, too many private schools have become holding pens for mostly white, wealthy youngsters who head off to college without any inkling of the world beyond their gated communities. Worse, they carry with them the unchecked inclination to recreate this world elsewhere.

The irony is that the elite colleges these students are gunning for are becoming more inclusive (see “The People’s Professor”). Bastions of the ivory tower like Harvard and Stanford are beginning to see the folly of a purebred student body and have retailored their financial aid to lure more middle- and lower-class students. As one Manhattan private school guidance counselor told the New York Post after parents went ballistic over a spate of Ivy League rejection letters last June, “It’s getting harder for private school students because it’s getting fairer for the rest of the world.”

Americans have become accustomed to a debilitating media diet of negativity and cynicism, especially when it comes to education. It’s time to refocus on the success stories, for inspiration and replication, because many of our schools—especially the ones serving students who can’t afford to opt out of the system—are in need of repair.

Exceptional innovation is going on at some charter and traditional public schools. At the Harlem Children’s Zone there’s a Herculean effort to transform one devastated neighborhood through targeted charter schools and holistic initiatives focused on parenting and community health. The Knowledge Is Power Program has set up charter schools that are drastically lifting the performance of minority and low-income students through rigorous curricula and high expectations.

There are also promising new models of public school integration on the horizon in the wake of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that nixed some race-based assimilation efforts. Focusing on class instead of race, and finding that the greatest predictor of student success after family background is a school’s socioeconomic background, a handful of districts are mixing up their schools to raise the performance of all students.

The success of such ventures and the possibility of seeding that success elsewhere depend on politicians, parents, and society at large scrapping the doom-and-gloom mind-set that’s allowed so many to regard our public schools as beyond repair. Public education requires not just public funding and public regulation, but also the commitment of a public that cares. If we’re going to keep talking about accountability, it should be our own.


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Post a comment below.

 

Kattia
1/30/2009 12:11:03 AM
Yes, it is time for a positive approach to educational reform. First on the agenda, however, is for everyone involved to acknowledge their own role in the current educational state of affairs. I am a teacher in a Title I school. Our population is primarily poor, African American and Hispanic children. All of the teachers at our school know that most of our students are struggling academically, economically, and often emotionally. Nevertheless, you don't know how many times I have passed by classrooms where teachers are talking on the cell phones, or just having students cleaning the classroom. Have they forgotten that these children rely on them (whether they know it now or not) to provide them with an education that will allow them to get out of some of the situations--ranging from mediocre to bad--many of our children are in? So why are they short changing their students? I hear teachers complaining regularly about 'all the paperwork', too much assessment, and about sticking to the union contract. I can't help but wonder: Whatever happened to having integrity and being part of something, something bigger than ourselves? How can a teacher sit and talk on a cell phone during a child's instructional time? If these were adults that could speak up for themselves, a teacher would be called out for that behavior and would probably change it because he/she would know that they'd get called out by students again if they pulled the same stunt. So, is it okay to take advantage of little kids because they are little kids who often times don't have parents that advocate for their educational well-being? Do administrators play a part in making teachers feel overworked and often demoralized, leading to some of the behavior exhibited by teachers working in poor schools? Yes. However, teachers need to start seeing that they are not victims, they have power, even with a small "p", within their own classrooms to get their children t

Kattia
1/30/2009 12:10:37 AM
Yes, it is time for a positive approach to educational reform. First on the agenda, however, is for everyone involved to acknowledge their own role in the current educational state of affairs. I am a teacher in a Title I school. Our population is primarily poor, African American and Hispanic children. All of the teachers at our school know that most of our students are struggling academically, economically, and often emotionally. Nevertheless, you don't know how many times I have passed by classrooms where teachers are talking on the cell phones, or just having students cleaning the classroom. Have they forgotten that these children rely on them (whether they know it now or not) to provide them with an education that will allow them to get out of some of the situations--ranging from mediocre to bad--many of our children are in? So why are they short changing their students? I hear teachers complaining regularly about 'all the paperwork', too much assessment, and about sticking to the union contract. I can't help but wonder: Whatever happened to having integrity and being part of something, something bigger than ourselves? How can a teacher sit and talk on a cell phone during a child's instructional time? If these were adults that could speak up for themselves, a teacher would be called out for that behavior and would probably change it because he/she would know that they'd get called out by students again if they pulled the same stunt. So, is it okay to take advantage of little kids because they are little kids who often times don't have parents that advocate for their educational well-being? Do administrators play a part in making teachers feel overworked and often demoralized, leading to some of the behavior exhibited by teachers working in poor schools? Yes. However, teachers need to start seeing that they are not victims, they have power, even with a small "p", within their own classrooms to get their children t

Gay Beaudet
12/30/2008 6:20:53 PM
I have sent this letter to all my senators and representatives, and to president-elect Obama; no response! Here's my opinion of where we need to take education: I am writing to inform you about a situation of dire straits here on the rural Oregon coast. We are in a crisis stage in the Nestucca district, which endangers our very existence. I teach in a high-poverty area; schools operate on a bare-bones budget unstably funded, in run-down, mold-infested buildings that should have long ago been abandoned. We are continuously attempting to mend our broken economic troubles by cutting staff back to numbers that make it impossible to serve our students; we are asked to do the unattainable to meet test standards set by folks who have obviously never set foot in a classroom. Yet, I have an idea that I believe can serve as a success story in the transformation of education and help alleviate rural poverty while promoting renewable energy. Despite our predicament, we do have some incredibly promising resources that could very well help to solve the myriad problems facing us; our district owns 20 acres of prime farm land, which receives plenty of rain, wind, and, just three miles inland off the coast in Cloverdale, we catch an abundance of sunshine too!. Here it is, my intention: to find a way, through grants and investors, and a few savvy politicians, to establish a true “Green School,” a “No Waste,” school, as an expansion of my 30 raised bed organic garden that I see as merely the beginning. I need you to help me pursue this vision into reality. Imagine a school operating on 100 % renewable green energy generated on school property using wind turbines, solar panels and rain catchers; a well organized charter school that teaches the kids, with hands-on learning, the green technology needed for the future success of our continued existence. We would maintain a large agricultural production on site, coupled with small animals to provide eggs, meat, and dairy produc

Don Berg
12/30/2008 1:29:49 PM
[Sorry, the latter part of my previous comment got cut off] Yes, symbol manipulation is important, but being an accomplished member of a cohesive group is a fundamental prerequsite to being able to skillfully apply symbol manipulation behaviors to good effect within a particular social context. What is elmentary in elementary education is the social structure in which the children are embedded. What kind of social skills are we developing in children when they are embedded in a behavioral dictatorship? The existing alternative education culture that is marginalized in what passes for debate on educational issues is the democratic education movement. Democratic schools embed children in behavioral democracies. Children learn what it means to be a member of a community in which everyone has the right to have their grievences heard and to have the grief they cause others to be addressed directly by the judgment of their community. And it turns out that this kind of democratic system implicitly turns literacy into a practical social advantage that all the children eventually learn. There are hundereds of democratic schools around the world that put attitude before academics and consistently facilitate their graduates transition to becoming good, contributing citizens beyond their school. -- Enjoy, Don Berg Site: www.Teach-Kids-Attitude-1st.com Blog: blog.Attitutor.com

Don Berg
12/30/2008 12:52:15 PM
Here's an independent idea that points to an existing but currently marginalized alternative educational culture. I propose that the primary element in elementary education should not be academics. Current practice in almost all schools and certainly in the minds of those who conceive of education as a quantifiable commodity that is effectively accounted for on tests is that mastery of symbol manipulation behaviors (a.k.a. academics or the 3R's) is the paramount concern of elementary schools. Howard Gardner in his 1995 book The Unschooled Mind describes how symbol manipulation behavior came into prominence, "Once the importance of symbols had been recognized within the academy, researchers concerned with human development reached a consensus that this period of development [the early childhood/elementary school years] is best termed a time of 'symbolic mastery.' Such otherwise disparate scholars as Jean Piaget, Heinz Werner, Alexander Luria, and Jerome Bruner would all concur with this characterization. Indeed, so great is the consensus that one wonders whether possibly everyone may inexplicably have overlooked some competing issue-- one as manifest as the prose that was missed by Monsieur Jourdain [a character in Moliere's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme who was shocked to discover that he had all his life been unknowingly speaking in prose.]" Gardner is, in fact, correct in his speculation that everyone (including himself) has inexplicably overlooked a fundamental issue. That issue is commonly known as attitude, or more technically known by the rubrics of social/emotional/interpersonal/intrapersonal intelligences. The premature consensus on the primacy of symbol manipulation behaviors overlooks the evolutionary and developmental primacy of our species hundreds of thousands of years of social group development over the the past fifteen thousand years in which symbol manipulation behaviors have developed. Yes, symbol manip

Don Berg
12/30/2008 11:01:51 AM
Chris- As I understand it the increased spending tactic does not have a good record, there are state systems spending a lot with little to show for it and state systems spending little with a lot to show for it. Can you point to some evidence that spending has actually made a difference? It may be true that more money is called for, but in order for the argument to be valid you have to specify exactly where the spending needs to happen. I have no reason to believe that inflating the ranks of administrators is a good investment. Are you going to pay all teachers more, and if not, what criteria are you going to use to increase the pay of some and not the others? Are you going to use the No Child Left Behind tactic of high stakes testing results? -- Enjoy, Don Berg Site: www.Teach-Kids-Attitude-1st.com Blog: blog.Attitutor.com

Joseph Moore
12/29/2008 12:25:37 PM
The ‘About Us’ page says that the Utne Reader is all about “independent ideas and alternative culture” and “forward thinking”, yet somehow Lobel argues that we should do exactly what we’ve always done, only more so. She even harkens back to a mythical age, and makes her appeal to tradition: “Citizens need to rededicate themselves to the promise of public education, a tradition founded on the ideals of educating every child, unifying a country that’s been diverse since its inception, and instilling the civic-mindedness required of citizens in a healthy democracy“ – this sounds inspiring, unless one is at all familiar with the history of compulsory education is this country and elsewhere. In any case, ‘forward-looking’ this is not. One bit of subtly faulty logic calls for particular note, since it is so often repeated in discussions of education: “A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy found that, after controlling for background factors like student achievement before high school, a family’s socioeconomic status, and parental involvement, public school students performed just as well on achievement tests as private school students did, and made it into college at similar rates.” Adjust for all those variables, and what is revealed is that school doesn’t matter at all! Public, private, home, un-: if the kid comes from a strong, stable, high-achieving family, chances are very good that she’ll do well no matter how she spends her K-12 years! Conversely, chances are very good that a kid from a broken, poor, chaotic ‘family’ is doomed to end up in pretty much the same socio-economic place she came from. The truth is something the people who pay for these studies don’t want you to conclude: School is neither the source nor the answer to ancient, persistent social problems. Those problems merely provide a convenient pretext for grabbing power. Fundamentally, Lobel misses a key point: It is not the failures of public education that motivate millions across

Karen Hyams
12/28/2008 1:59:34 PM
The author's underlying premise seems to be that public schools can and should do traditional education better, without questioning the value of traditional education or its alternatives. The truth is that many kids leave public schools because they are not good places for them and school districts have no incentive to branch out into other ways of looking at how kids learn. I tried being a good citizen, while my son became depressed and sick and I made no progress with his teacher or principal, so I chose being a good mother and had to leave the other citizens to improve things without me. I don't feel guilty about it.

Chris Spiliotis_2
12/23/2008 9:47:59 AM
What do I know about improving pubic education? I've only been a public school teacher for 34 years. I do know this, though. Those who say that you can't improve things by throwing money at it are dead wrong. As I see it, making the funding of public education would, off the top of my head, accomplish two things. It would enable governmental entities to pay teachers a top salary. This would attract the brightest people to the profession and rejuvenate the ranks of teachers, many of whom are nearing retirement age, with young people who will instill the love of learning in our children. More importantly, on so many levels it would provide tangible proof, to society as a whole and to children specifically, that education is valued and is the means to a productive, fulfilled, and rewarded life. That's the way it seemed to me when I attended public grammar schools in the 50's and 60's, when we were full of hope for the future.








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