More on the Public Purpose of Our Public Schools and the Role of Public Governance

There has recently been a debate among guest writers in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column in the Washington Post. The Network for Public Education’s  Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch published a defense of public governance of public schools, a column which critiqued a new report from the Learning Policy Institute.  The Learning Policy Institute’s Linda Darling-Hammond responded with a defense of the Learning Policy Institute’s report, which defends school choice including privately governed and operated charter schools. Finally Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris responded to Darling-Hammond’s response. This blog weighed in here last week.

As it happens, Stanford University emeritus professor of education, David Labaree enhances this conversation with a new column on the public purpose of public education at Phi Delta Kappan: “We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means.  But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century… it’s becoming less and less obvious….”

A spoiler: There is no equivocation in Labaree’s analysis.  He is a strong supporter of public education, and he worries that by prizing the personal and individualistic benefit of education, our society may have lost sight of our schools’ public purpose: “A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally.  In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.”

Labaree traces the history of public education through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but he believes more recently: “Over the subsequent decades… growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or collective investment in workforce development.”

Labaree does not explicitly address growing school privatization, but he generalizes about the growing individualistic American ethos that accommodates privatization: “At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.”

Labaree holds the education of citizens as among the central purposes of our grandparents and their forebears as they envisioned public schools: “The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared both for commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas… But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society.”

Beyond Labaree’s philosophical defense of public education’s communitarian purpose and his condemnation of our society’s love of individual competition today, there are other concerns with the abandonment of public purpose and the abandonment of public governance of education.  We can no longer ignore the failure of our state legislatures to protect the tax dollars raised by the public but ripped off by unscrupulous edupreneurs who build mansions and take lavish trips with the money they steal in states which have failed to prevent conflicts of interest and outright fraud by operators of privatized schools. We can no longer ignore the instability for students when privately governed charter schools suddenly shut down without warning—often in the middle of the school year. And we can no longer ignore the impact of the rapid authorization of charter schools and growth of voucher programs as they suck money out of states’ already meager public education budgets and at the same time destabilize their host school districts.

Labaree connects the growth of school privatization with our society’s competitive individualism which reserves a spot at the top for able children of the privileged and settles for cheaper alternatives for the children we have always left behind. I once heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson poignantly describe the ethical lapse in a system featuring individualism: “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.”

Another perfect formulation of Labaree’s concern is from the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Barber adds another important component of public governance, however: the protection of the rights of students and families by law in public institutions: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.

Campbell Brown and Joe Nocera Trash Teachers; Education Experts Respond

Again in the past week, two prominent media personalities—neither one a school teacher by profession or training and both with an ax to grind—have attacked school teachers, the programs that train teachers, and the teachers unions and due process rights protected in union contracts.

Of course Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, has launched her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose mission is to bring lawsuits across the states to get rid of due process protections for teachers.  This week her organization filed a second Vergara-type lawsuit in New York state, and Campbell Brown went on The Colbert Report to promote her new cause.  (This blog has covered Campbell Brown here, and here.)  Earlier this week, Valerie Strauss published an analysis of Campbell Brown’s interview with Stephen Colbert.  Strauss’s guest columnist is Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a former high school teacher and now assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.  Hadley Dunn fact-checks what Campbell Brown had to say; I urge you to read her careful analysis.  She concludes: “Ms. Brown… I wholeheartedly concur that educational policies should be determined by what is best for children.  What I remain unconvinced about, however, is how eliminating teachers’ rights is what is best for children.  We know that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions…. What research actually shows is best for children is teachers with long-term and sustained preparation in content and pedagogy; an equitable education that is not segregated by race and socioeconomic status; and student-centered, hands-on pedagogy that sustains students’ cultures and challenges them to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.  None of this has anything to do with teacher tenure laws.”

And Joe Nocera (on the op ed page of the NY Times) has once again been attacking college training programs for teachers.  Last December Nocera praised the almost universally discredited report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization established by the Thomas Fordham Foundation in 2000 to promote alternative certification paths outside the teachers colleges.  As the education writer and UCLA professor of education,  Mike Rose wrote in response to Nocera’s December column, “Much has been written about the problems with this report, particularly about the significant limitations of its analysis, built primarily of one kind of information: syllabi, course descriptions, and other program materials.  Because of NCTQ’s well-known animus toward teacher ed programs, only a small number of programs willfully complied with requests for this information, so the Center filed open records requests, litigated where it could, searched the Internet, queried students and districts, and so on—setting up a contentious dynamic that suffuses the Teacher Prep Review.  At several points, the authors appeal directly to readers to pressure their institutions to comply with NCTQ.  The gloves are off.”  Rose criticzes those, like Joe Nocera, who equate “good teaching with technique,” and who discount the value of  more theoretical coursework in philosophy and psychology of education, for example.

Nocera’s recent article repeats his bias for teacher training based on finite techniques and tricks. Nocera also attacks young teachers without backing up his accusations. He describes new teachers who “are basically left alone in the classroom to figure it out on their own.  In America, that’s how it’s always been done.  An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success.  Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job.”  He celebrates a professor at the University of Michigan who has broken down the practice of teaching into discrete practices, and writes, “Bell is pushing the idea that teachers should be prepared to teach—that they should have the tools and the skills—when they walk into that classroom on the first day on the job.  That is rarely the case right now.” How does Nocera know this is rarely the case?  He provides no evidence to back up this contention.  What about the  guided practicum experiences regularly provided and required by colleges of education including semester-long student teaching under master-teachers backed up by college professors?

You wouldn’t know it by reading Nocera or listening to Campbell Brown, but both of the nation’s large teachers unions endorse programs to support new teachers as they improve their practice.  The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers also explicitly support accountability through formal peer assistance and review programs, and are underwriting grants to help their locals strengthen such programs.  When school districts fail to provide strong programs to support new teachers through mentoring and time for collaborative planning among teachers across grade level teams, it is not because teachers unions oppose such programs.  In fact union locals regularly work to get planning time and mentoring included in their contracts.  When school districts balk, it is virtually always due to financial constraints in communities where state and local funding has continued to drop since 2008.  Programs to support teachers, to improve school climate, and to implement fair, high quality professional evaluation are uniformly endorsed by the national teachers unions and their locals.

For a more substantive approach to issues of education policy including issues around the training of teachers, I recommend a good book for end-of-summer reading.  Public Education Under Siege, edited by Mike Rose and the historian Michael B. Katz—a collection of wonderful essays on public education published by the University of Pennsylvania Press—was just re-released in paperback at an affordable price under $20.  Chapter 3, Targeting Teachers is one of my favorite essays.  Here David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University, describes exactly the kind of learning that teachers undergo in their first years in the classroom.  It isn’t as Nocera describes, that new teachers stumble along because they don’t know what they are doing.  Well trained teachers across the country do know how to teach and they know what to do, but they likely haven’t yet had an opportunity to fully develop the teaching persona that will enable them to function comfortably in the classroom day after day, year after year:

Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students.  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded ‘teacher look.’  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter so infections that they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.  Constructing such a persona is a complex task that takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona falls in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands—grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students—and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.” (p. 35)

So… to answer Joe Nocera, a professor of education describes the importance of technique and also much more.  And, to confront Campbell Brown… we learn why experience matters and developing strong committed professionals is far more central to building the profession than weeding out a handful of bad teachers. Professionals working in our schools along with the professors who prepared them agree that we  need to create a supportive learning climate  to enable teachers to continue to develop what they know how to do and to help children enjoy learning.