Putting the public back in ‘public education’

Ever come across something that made you wonder whether the author had been reading your mind?

I’ve experienced just such an epiphany with the recent article by David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation that appears in Phi Delta Kappan, called The Public and Public Schools: The Coproduction of Education.

I’ll resist the urge to quote the entire article, but here’s one of several passages that had me shouting, “Amen!”

“The accountability that people do want is more relational than informational. Americans don’t object to using test scores, but they think the scores should be used for diagnostic purposes rather than for punitive ones. Citizens want face-to-face accountability, with educators giving a full account of what happens in classrooms and on playgrounds. Most legislated accountability measures don’t create a relationship of shared responsibility. Instead, the laws leave citizens on the outside looking in.”

As Mathews thoughtfully develops in this piece, the public (including, but not limited to parents and teachers) have a deeper role in the education of all of our children than just attending the PTA or making sure Jasmine does her homework. As he deftly notes, “The community itself is an educational institution.” Raising well-educated children has always required more than what could be done within the confines of a classroom or school day. Even more so as information and social interactions are less and less bound by physical space or time. Wiser parents have always understand this concept and sought out learning opportunities outside the schoolhouse, or exploited teachable moments during the ordinary activities of life.

Before the old proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” became a socio-political catchphrase, it was a heartfelt practice in neighborhoods and towns.The entire community took the raising and teaching of children as a collective responsibility. I could as much expect Mr. Alexander across the street to quiz me on my times tables as I could my teacher. Mrs. Duncan at the corner store was well within her rights to chastise me for acting “unladylike” in public, and would make sure my mother heard of it before I made it home. I, and thousands of other children in our communities, first learned the art of public speaking not at school, but in church.

It was the neighborhood little league team (before the ascendancy of Hummer-driving “soccer moms” and overly-aggressive fans and Dads) where we learned what it meant to work together, never quit, be gracious in loss, and thankful in victory. The local public librarian knew all of us and our favorite books. In its better days, my hometown Detroit Public Schools made sure every pupil attended at least one concert of the Detroit Symphony and visited at least one of the local museums each school year. The deterioration and fragmenting of neighborhoods, along with the dispersion of families (among many other factors) has resulted in the weakening or loss of these community interactions which so richly supplemented children’s formal education.

Another high point in Mathews’ piece is the reminder that: “Schools were made public for democratic, not pedagogical, reasons. And the educators who administer schools and teach in them are unique among professionals in their historic relationship to democracy.” Educators have always had a higher calling than simply to generate a workforce; we were to produce thinking, responsible citizens. However, we were never expected to do it entirely on our own.

Mathews also points out what has come to be a common misperception of the relationship between the broader public and the work of its schools: “”These days, the most common strategies for restructuring the relationship between the public and the schools treat citizens as consumers.”  Mathews, correctly, points to NCLB and other such school reform initiatives as results of this view.

I would argue further that the push for application of free market principles in the reform of schools is insidiously counterproductive and may actually threaten American democracy in profound ways. Developing a rating system for schools based on flawed, limited testing instruments, then publishing those ratings in a push to get parents to shop around for educational options sounds like democracy in action. In reality, it exacerbates existing inequalities in educational and social resources.

The goal should not be to see how many schools we can close down or force out of business (considering in many places the schools that exist are seriously overcrowded), but rather how many schools we as a nation of citizens can reclaim, restore, and reconnect to the communities from which they should organically grow.

4/17/08 P.S. – This blog was featured in the Carnival of Education.