The Civic Importance of Public Education: Valuing What We Take for Granted

How can we learn to value what we take for granted?

Public schools are institutions we have taken for granted for so long that it’s hard to imagine they could disappear.  In Cleveland’s saddest neighborhoods, I am jarred every time I drive by an empty lot where I used to see a school that has now been torn down.  I still remember the names of each of the elementary schools in my small Montana town.  Schools are the institutional anchors by which I define neighborhoods.  But when people attack public education, as lots of people do these days, I struggle to know how to put into words my defense of this core civic institution.

One way to learn to appreciate the public schools is to read the philosophies and histories of public education.  David Tyack, the education historian, writes: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not.  The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin… The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering.  Almost anywhere a school-age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend.  Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff.” (Seeking Common Ground: Public schools in a Diverse Society, p. 182)

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, Harvard economists, share another perspective on the importance of public education in our nation’s history. They identify a set of virtues of public education: “By virtues, we mean a set of characteristics that originated in basic democratic and egalitarian principles and that influenced the educational system.  The virtues… include public provision by small, fiscally independent districts; public funding; secular control; gender neutrality; open access; and a forgiving system.  These virtuous features are summarized by the word ‘egalitarianism.’ They have held the promise (if not always the reality) of equality of opportunity and a common education for all U.S. children.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 130)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was designed to hold schools accountable for outcomes. For the purpose of forcing everybody to try harder, No Child Left Behind set utopian and unreachable test score targets.  Schools that could not quickly and consistently raise scores every year until all children were deemed proficient by 2014 were labeled “failing.”  More and more schools were marked as “failing”  every year, and the federal government was finally forced to create waivers for schools from the punishments that were supposed to follow.  But the waivers have not diminished the sting of the widespread label of “failure.”  These days when people think about public education, their minds are driven by the media to the need for turnaround and accountability.  This happens so frequently that I have actually felt compelled to formulate a response: Public schools cannot be perfect, but a system of public education provides society’s best chance for meeting the needs and protecting the rights of all of our children.

Of course, such responses are theoretical; they miss the heart of the matter.  There is one book, however, that explores public schools in a very different way.  Last week in the Washington Post, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives, Valerie Strauss printed a guest column from its author, Mike Rose, research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.  Possible Lives is a wonderful and inspiring book, the result of a series of Rose’s visits to the classrooms of extraordinary teachers across the United States.  In last week’s column, Rose writes: “Possible Lives is my favorite of my books because of the many encounters and discoveries it afforded me.  I began with the intention of writing about school and ended up writing as well about our country.  About its physical and social landscape…  You can’t really write—or think or talk—about schools in any comprehensive way without writing about all that surrounds them, for schools are so embedded in place.  Schools are porous; whatever is going on outside quickly makes its way into the classroom.  And schools—memory of them, the experience of them—for good or bad shape individual and communal life.”  In this book Rose takes his readers into classrooms from Calexico, California to Chicago to rural Kentucky to a one room school in Polaris, Montana. Teachers in these places and dozens more respect and nurture children, challenge them to think and reflect.  Possible Lives is over 400 pages, but I felt so sad when I finished it.  It is the one education book I can enthusiastically recommend as a great summer read, though its content is serious, or as a good way to mark the beginning of the 2015-1016 school year.

In the preface Rose wrote for the 2006 edition, he points out that this book does not intend to gloss over the problems with our public schools: “Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools.  This book is not a defense of the status quo.  The reader will gain sharp perspective on the ills of public education from the teachers and students in the classrooms we visit.  It is necessary for a citizenry to assess the performance of its public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter… (B)efore we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We would also want to ask why we’re evaluating.  To what end?” (Possible Lives, p. xv)

Rose concludes that preface: “Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere.  This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent.  It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language.  It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled.  When a local affair or a regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word.  When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward.  When a student said that his teacher ‘coaxes our thinking along.’… There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the ‘general diffusion of knowledge’ across the republic.  Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.  As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades.  Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.” (Possible Lives, p, xxviii)