Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

Here are words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Busy working, maintaining house and yard, swimming in an ocean of information in our media-driven, consumer society, most of us aren’t, perhaps, likely to spend a lot of time considering these principles, but it would certainly be wonderful if the officials we have chosen as our leaders were to demonstrate that, for them, at least, these truths are self-evident.

After all, we’ve spent two and a half centuries making some progress by ensuring that our laws protect more than just the rights of men. And we have defined more precisely the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These struggles for redefinition have very often centered in the public schools—the right for the descendants of slaves to educational equality, the right for American Indian children to attend schools that reflect their indigenous cultures—the right for immigrant children to instruction in English and for the undocumented, the right to a K-12 public school education—the right of LGBT students to be safe, respected and understood.

Now it seems that our leaders have stepped back—even that they are willing to lead us backward.  For President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, what does not seem self-evident is “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  The most blatant recent example is Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Abusing his position as a public official, Arpaio ran his department without concern for the rights of  the Hispanic residents of Phoenix—in flagrant violation of the rule of law. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. But the President, unfazed by the nature of Arpaio’s crime, called Arpaio a good man.  Here is the Washington Post: “(T)he White House’s official statement lauding Mr. Arpaio failed to mention the charge for which Mr. Trump had granted clemency: a criminal conviction of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling… Despite Mr. Trump’s suggestion that Mr. Arpaio was ‘convicted for doing his job,’ a federal judge found the former sheriff guilty of contempt when he refused to cease rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants on the basis of appearance alone. But Mr. Arpaio’s abuse of his authority as sheriff went well beyond racial profiling. With pride, he detained inmates in inhumane conditions and humiliated them in the name of deterring crime.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, like Trump, seems unclear that, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted.”  In a keynote address earlier this summer, she wondered: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families—and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” She added: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Demonstrating her unconcern for the government’s role in operating a  system of education to protect students’ rights, DeVos has begun limiting investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to the details of formal complaints as filed, without examining the three years of previous evidence to look for systemic violations. Her department has also wrapped up a large backlog of civil rights complaints without findings in most cases.

Trump and DeVos freely disparage the institution of public education—with DeVos persistently extolling privatized charter schools and various private school tuition voucher schemes.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes the damage being inflicted by Trump and DeVos on the very government institution for which they are responsible. After Trump once again disdained, at a recent Phoenix, Arizona event, “the failures of our public schools,” Strauss wrote: “But the larger effect of Trump’s remark is not that it is wrong but rather that it is part of a pattern of his — and of DeVos’s — to disparage public education as they promote programs that take resources away from public school systems…Such sentiments by Trump and DeVos, consistently expressed publicly, reinforce the myth that traditional public education is broadly failing students and that the answer is using public money for privately run and/or owned schools.”

Last week, in Losing Our Purpose, Measuring the Wrong Things, William Mathis, Vice-Chairman of the Vermont Board of Education and Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, considered what ought to be self-evident to all of us in an era when our leaders seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of public education.  Mathis traces our problems not just to Trump and DeVos, but also to the test-and-punish accountability agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations: “By declaring schools “failures,” public monies were increasingly diverted to private corporations. Yet, after a half-century of trials, there is no body of evidence that shows privatized schools are better or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial score declines. The plain fact is that privatization, even at its best, does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap — but it segregates. It imperils the unity of schools and society. This proposed solution works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.”

Mathis calls us all to remember the purposes of public education: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”

Society has struggled, however, to ensure justice and realize the promise of our public schools: “But our social progress is checkered. Residential segregation and unequal opportunities still blight our society, economy and schools. Unfortunately, rather than addressing politically unpopular root causes, it was far more convenient to demand schools solve these problems… No serious effort was made to assure equal opportunities, for example. Thus, the achievement gap was finessed by blaming the victim. Instead of advancing democracy, our neediest schools were underfunded. The new purpose, test-based reform, appealed to conservatives because it sounded tough and punitive; to liberals because it illuminated the plainly visible problems; and it was cheap – the costs were passed on to the schools.”

Here is Bill Mathis’s challenge for the future of public education: “If our purpose is a democratic and equitable society, test scores take us off-purpose. They distract our attention. Rather, our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good…  We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.”

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6 thoughts on “Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident?

  1. Pingback: Is the Purpose of Public Education No Longer Self-Evident? Jan Resseger | Citizen Advocates for Public Education (CAPEOhio)

  2. The headline today in the Chicago Sun Times reads, “Claypool chalks up improved test scores to stiff competition.” Forrest Claypool, Mayor Emmanuel’s appointed school chief, seems to believe that only competition can motivate teachers and students. “As choice expands throughout the system, parents are more empowered than ever and schools are under pressure to improve in order to attract students. I know some people think schools should not face that kind of pressure. I disagree. . . . We’re all under pressure, and without an incentive to get better, big bureaucracies tend to stand still. Pretty soon they convince themselves the status quo is just fine when it isn’t. In fact, we need to increase competitive pressure and a greater sense of accountability.” Put aside for the moment the fact that Claypool offers no evidence to support his assertion or that he has just insulted his districts most important asset, namely, its teachers. Ask instead what he would say to Bill Mathis – “Our success is measured by how well we enhance health in our society, manifest civic virtues, behave as a society, and dedicate ourselves to the common good… We must select leaders who embrace higher purposes and in John Dewey’s words, choose people who will expand our heritage of values, make the world more solid and secure, and more generously share it with those that come after us.” Survival of the fittest on an uneven playing field is hardly a “higher purpose.” It demeans the professionalism of teachers and educates our students to believe that American democracy is little more than a sorting out of losers from winners.

  3. Pingback: Jan Resseger: Did We Forget the Purpose of Education? | Diane Ravitch's blog

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