An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the 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 to 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, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

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Parents’ Consensus on Public School Policy Challenges the Status Quo

Education writer Mike Rose and historian Michael Katz conclude the wonderful collection of essays they recently edited by regretting that, “there does not seem to be an elaborated philosophy of education or theory of learning underlying the current (education) reform movement.  There is an implied philosophy, and it is a basic economic/human capital one; education is necessary for individual economic advantage and for national economic stability.”

According to a new national poll of American parents of school children, a poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers by Hart Research Associates, parents share a belief in a far more expansive philosophy of education.  The short report of the survey’s conclusions is fascinating, and I urge you to read all of the results, but for me the survey’s most important news is that parents agree that schools should accomplish several core goals.   Seventy-eight percent of parents believe school should ensure that, “all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed.”  For their own children, parents want schools to do four things:   “1) improve their knowledge and critical thinking abilities;  2) provide them with a safe learning environment;  3) educate them about their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy; and  4) address their social, emotional, and health needs.”

This is, of course, not a fully elaborated philosophy of education, but it comes closer than the economic rationale being promulgated by policy makers.  Parents want equity (though we know they will frequently make housing choices, for example, that promote their own children’s interests over those of other children), and they enthusiastically endorse education that forms the child intellectually, linguistically, emotionally, and ethically.  A whole child philosophy of education.

This new opinion poll points to the need for political leadership to build on parents’ named willingness to use public schools to serve children who are currently being left behind.  Instead, as Rose and Katz describe the conversation among education policy makers, “Poverty is mentioned, but in a variety of ways it is downplayed.  So all the damage poverty does to communities and to households, to schools and to other local institutions is rarely addressed.  And it’s hard to find discussion of the economic, political, and social history of poverty, leading to an oddly antiseptic and ahistorical treatment of community, schools, and achievement.”

Among policymakers, what we have, according to Rose and Katz, is, “a rough consensus which crosses political lines, blames poor teaching, ineffective teacher preparation programs, teachers’ unions, the lack of accountability for results, and monopolistic public systems for the failures of student achievement measured, primarily, by test scores. In mainstream reform discourse, teachers and their unions emerge as the major villains, the primary stumbling blocks to assuring every child an adequate education.”

It is fascinating that in this week’s public opinion poll of parents, teachers are not the villains.  Parents take a constructive view of improving teaching; parents advocate for better support and training including mentoring.  Eighty-eight percent want smaller classes, and 81 percent would like to see more community, neighborhood-hub schools that include health services and community services right at school.  Eighty percent  would like to see high-quality preschool for all three and four year olds.

Parents demonstrate wide consensus about what needs to happen to improve opportunities for their own and other people’s children.  But that consensus has not been transformed into the political will to challenge growing residential segregation by economics and race. Neither has political leadership surfaced to challenge the anti-tax, austerity budgeting across the states and in Congress that is denying to public schools precisely the services parents say they want.  How to make that happen is the question for our times.