Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools. His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it. Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now. Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time. “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes. They tell the starfish story. They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise. And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned. There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow. Just cut it loose. Let it go. Out of sight, out of mind. We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people. This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”
The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education. In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1) Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility. We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.
That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools. Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars. Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries. Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals. Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation. Toll roads sold to private enterprises. Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation. And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”
Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth. It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity. Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive. But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy. Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries. What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response. Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity. The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber. A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of… Call it a failure of solidarity.”
Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us. Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations. U.S. infant mortality continues to rise. And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”