Public Schools—the Mortar that Holds the Community Together (Garrison Keillor)

Jeff Bryant, who writes a weekly column for the Educational Opportunity Network, recently discussed the difference between conceptualizing education reform around inputs and outcomes.  Today our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and all the federal competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that prescribe punitive turnarounds for schools that can’t produce high test scores are designed to measure outcomes.  The very concept of achievement gaps is defined by test scores—outcomes.

Outcomes are important surely.  As parents we hope for successful outcomes for our children: a high school diploma—college graduation—a job.  Then there are the intangible outcomes we look for: mental health, contentment, ethical character, the capacity to stick with whatever one undertakes. Parents quickly realize there are too many variables; their children are human and invariably complex.  We do the best we can, but we cannot guarantee outcomes.

Neither can the community guarantee positive outcomes for all of its children, though in 1889, John Dewey, our premier education philosopher challenged us to do our best:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Dewey’s idea is about inputs, however.  He challenges us to hold ourselves personally responsible for educating all children.  Today there is ample evidence that we are not even coming close to providing adequate educational inputs for our society’s poorest children.

Brand new census data demonstrate that, “Public elementary and secondary education revenue fell in fiscal year 2012 for the first time since 1977, when the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting public education finance data annually.  Public elementary and secondary school systems received $594.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal year 2012, down $4.9 billion, or 0.8 percent, from fiscal year 2011….”  “State governments were the leading source of revenue ($270.4 billion), closely followed by revenue from local sources ($264.6 billion).  Almost two-thirds, or 65.3 percent, of revenue from local sources came from property taxes.  Public school systems received $59.5 billion in revenue from the federal government, a decrease of $14.2 billion, 19.2 percent, from the previous year.”

While society cannot promise to close achievement gaps (outcomes), we are fully capable of addressing opportunity gaps—the differences in resources that society provides for children and schools from place to place.  Notice, for example in the census data, that over half of local funding derives from property taxes, among the most unequal forms of tax revenue. Heavy reliance on local property taxes only magnifies disparities in family resources in an America where some children live in pockets of concentrated poverty and others in pockets of concentrated affluence.

Here are some input-based reforms that ought to be our priority because we know they would support and improve the public schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.  We could fully fund the Title I formula to assist all the schools serving very poor children.  The federal government could condition receipt of Race to the Top or School Improvement Grants on states’ making their school funding formulas more equitable.  We could seriously consider expanding pre-kindergarten in every state; the federal government could help make this significant reform affordable and could create incentives for states to consider it.  We could ensure that all children have well-qualified teachers with college-based certification; strengthen class offerings in all high schools to ensure that all students have access to physics, chemistry, and advanced math; reduce class size;  bring back an adequate number of counselors, school nurses,  libraries and librarians in the poorest schools; add challenging classes in the humanities and instrumental music in the schools that have lost such programs.  These are mere examples of ways to close opportunity gaps—all inputs-based improvements our society could easily guarantee.

Today policy makers argue about school reform abstractions defined via outcomes: the Common Core standards and tests, value-added-measures to rate teachers, third-grade reading scores as a mechanism for determining grade promotion, or awarding letter grades to schools based on their test-score rankings. Promoters of outcomes-based school reform claim test-based accountability is unbiased and objective.  Another way to describe such policy is “distant” and “calculating.”  The Rethinking Schools editorial board even recently pronounced that outcomes-based school reform “disguises class and race privilege as merit.” (Check out this blog’s reflection on that editorial here.)

Speaking about Newark, New Jersey, New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera decries today’s outcomes-based school reform because it is cold and impersonal while school improvement would pull together the efforts of educators and the entire community to support its children: “It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”  Garrison Keillor, like Noguera, reminds us that public schools are very human institutions: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together.  You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” (Homegrown Democrat, p. 190)

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2 thoughts on “Public Schools—the Mortar that Holds the Community Together (Garrison Keillor)

  1. An outstanding article, Jan. I am reminded that Mr. Keillor also wrote in the book you mention these words: “Our lives depend on the social compact the Republicans are determined to cripple by cutting taxes so as to starve government and kill off public services through insolvency…Tax cuts that benefit primarily the wealthy? You don’t encourage invention and ambition by giving a quarter-million-dollar tax break to a $15-million-a-year man. Give the bus driver’s bright children a chance to get a great education for free. That’s an investment.”

  2. Pingback: Must Read: How Bill Gates’ Power Drives Education Policy | janresseger

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