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Improving public education isn’t a mystery

Do we really want a system that will generate free thinkers, or are we leaning more toward institutions that will perpetuate a particular set of values?

Learning Leadership column, Oct. 2011 edition of eSchool News—What is the purpose of a public education system? In America, we would like to believe that our forefathers envisioned the creation of a strong democracy that would necessitate an educated populace capable of governing itself and use the acquired knowledge to elect and direct the actions of their representatives in government. Perhaps one of the reasons why public education is currently under attack is because it seems that we have not done a very good job in electing and directing our representatives. Their actions reflect badly on our wisdom—and, consequently, our system of education.

Our anger at members of Congress for their actions, or perhaps more accurately, their inactions, is misplaced. We put them there. They believe they are acting on our behalf. Therefore, when they bring our country to the brink of economic disaster and our nation’s weaknesses are exposed to the eyes of the world, we have to acknowledge that it is a mere reflection of the split nation we have become.

Education policy making has been affected by the same paralysis that grips other areas of lawmaking. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current iteration as No Child Left Behind, languishes in our schools and classrooms, negatively affecting the public’s perception of the quality of our schools by virtue of the faulty accountability system that it created. Our lawmakers can no more reach agreement on a fix to our educational system than they can to our economic malaise.

Hordes of education “reformers” propose solutions to the problems we face, but it is readily apparent to bona fide education experts that these solutions are shallow representations of political beliefs, rather than reflecting any in-depth knowledge of pedagogy or child psychology. Perhaps the debate should take us back to the basic question of what is the purpose of a public education—and better yet, what is the purpose of a public education today?

History informs us that when Thomas Jefferson envisioned a system of public education, it was designed to meet the needs of his day. Not all children were to be privy to an education: certainly not slaves or women, and not even all boys. Public education would be selective, weeding out the capable from the incapable and moving forward those who would rise to be the leaders of our enterprise system. Indeed, for many years our public schools performed that sorting function extremely well, with no expectation that every child should graduate from high school and go on to college. But the agricultural economy that then transformed into an industrial economy needed manual laborers, not knowledge workers, and the sorting system separated the chaff from the wheat.

Somewhere along the latter half of the 20th century, we began to transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy requiring a better-educated labor force—but somebody forgot to inform our public school system that its mission had changed. The abrupt change from sorting to leaving no child behind and expecting every child to graduate from high school, and now to graduate from college, is a quantum leap from where we have been. Our schools are simply not ready to perform that function—not in how they are currently organized; not at the current level of financial support they receive; not with the set of laws, rules, and regulations that encumber them; not with an existing culture that refuses to accept the impact of poverty on learning and is still subject to the lingering influence of racism.

What is the purpose of a public education today? Are we truly ready to educate the masses and then be subject to the political decisions they will make? How would it affect the existing political stalemate? Would educated voters increase the numbers of the Tea Party, or add to the roles of registered Democrats or Republicans? Do we really want a system that will generate free thinkers, or are we leaning more toward institutions that will perpetuate a particular set of values?

The science of education exists. We know how children learn. It is not a mystery. If children and schools are failing, it is not because we lack the knowledge to provide them with the proper education. It is because we refuse to provide them with the resources and the opportunities they need to succeed.

There is ample evidence that the very children who are considered at risk of failing because they are immigrants, poor, colored, speak a language other than English, have a learning disability, or are physically impaired can—and do—learn in the appropriate environment. Equity is not providing the same thing to every child, but rather providing each child with what he or she needs to learn. Are we ready to do that, and to bear the cost it would entail? With some exceptions, the answer to that question has been a resounding “no.”

The way education is funded in America ensures the preservation of the status quo. The quality of education in any community can be predicted by its ZIP code. The higher the wealth of the community, the better the system of education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was an attempt at equalizing the playing field by pushing federal dollars toward impoverished communities—but at a mere average 8 percent of a school district’s revenue, this federal share of education funding is not enough.

Property taxes generate the bulk of school dollars, and the wealthier the community, the more dollars generated. We see more attempts by parents to illegally place their children in the schools of adjacent communities, where the quality of education is superior to the schools those children should rightfully attend. On a grander scale, the city of Nashville recently engineered a vote that would merge its schools with those of the wealthier Shelby County in an attempt to garner greater resources for its students.

Data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress have demonstrated consistently that children in the free and reduced lunch program achieve at higher levels when they attend a school where the concentration of free and reduced lunch children is less than 10 percent. Conversely, the academic performance of free and reduced lunch children in schools where the concentration exceeds 90 percent is the very worst.

The analysis of why this is so is beyond the scope of this column, but suffice it to say that elements such as teacher quality, environments conducive to learning, adequate resources, and community support play a major role. It is important to note that there are exceptions to the rule, and there are many schools with large concentrations of children in the free and reduced lunch program where the children thrive academically—but we know they are the exception to the rule, the outliers, and not in sufficient numbers to overcome the achievement gap.

If the purpose of our public schools is to strengthen and preserve our democracy, then we should not fear the impact of an educated populace. If, on the other hand, we want to preserve the status quo, we want to preserve the existing social order, and we do not want the scales to tip, then we will not see transformation. Solutions will be proposed that will do little to change dysfunction where it exists, and the persisting failure will be used to continue to beat educators until their morale improves.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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