Values that Express Our Idea of Public Education: The Values that Should Steady Us in this Tumultuous Week

This blog, which usually posts Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, will post on neither election day nor the next morning. Look for a new post on Thursday, November 8.

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We have been surrounded by hate crimes this week—in Kentucky and in Pittsburgh and in the bombs mailed to politicians and George Soros. And we are being barraged in the media by the story of migrants coming north to find sanctuary from violence—desperate people who will now be met by thousands of soldiers sent to the border to protect us from these “outsiders.” By contrast, over the centuries, a consensus has continued to grow about our public schools’ inclusive mission—to serve all children in settings that are physically and emotionally safe.

As a foil for what we are watching, hearing and reading in the press, here are some simple principles from experts who have considered the purpose of public education. These statements describe values which I believe most Americans continue to expect our public schools to model.

As you prepare to vote next Tuesday I hope you will steady yourself by reflecting on some of the values the writers quoted here describe.

On the Purpose of Public Education

From Benjamin Barber in An Aristocracy of Everyone: “This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well.  It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (pp. 13-14)

From Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary: “The economic motive has always been a significant factor in the spread of mass education in the United States, and as someone from the working class who has achieved financial mobility from schooling, the importance of the link between education and economic well being is not lost on me… What I want to consider here is how this economic focus blended with the technology of large-scale assessment can restrict our vision of what school ought to be about, the full sweep of growth and development, both for individuals and for a democratic society.  I wonder, then if one of the things people respond to in Lives on the Boundary is the depiction of education as a complex lived experience. Calculating, writing, solving a problem, or recalling information takes place in a field laden with feeling—satisfaction or embarrassment, uncertainty, pushing oneself, and a thousand tiny brushes with others.  And it all takes place someplace with its history and culture, its economic and political context—which can have a profound effect on what goes on in a classroom.” (pp. 245-247)

On Language, Culture, Immigration and the Public Schools

From Benjamin Barber in A Passion for Democracy:  America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (p. 231)

From Meg Gebhard, Theresa Austin, Sonia Nieto, and Jerri Willett, in “You Can’t Step on Someone Else’s Words,” in The Power of Culture: Teaching Across Language Difference, edited by Zeynep Beykont: “We want teachers to see themselves as cultural mediators by taking leadership roles in critically assessing taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of language, learning, and diversity, particularly as these issues relate to learning English as a world language… (W)e encourage teachers to ask, ‘How do we support and encourage learners who are in the process of becoming bilingual despite practices and attitudes that make it difficult for them to do so?’  Similarly, we encourage teachers to think about how schools need to change to accommodate cultural differences, rather than concentrating on how schools can assimilate students who are culturally different.” (p. 224)

From K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa McCarty, in To Remain an Indian:  “Northern Cheyenne educator Richard Littlebear writes: ‘We cannot leave behind the essence of our being.’  Language is the means through which parents and grandparents socialize their children and grandchildren, imparting all that a community and a people believe their children ought to learn and become. When that bond is broken, intergenerational ties and community relationships also are ruptured. Hence, rights to language are fundamental to collective and personal identity, and efforts to resist language loss cannot be decoupled from larger struggles for personal and communal well-being, self-determination, and cultural survival” (p. 136)

On Protecting Religious Liberty in Public Schools

From The First Amendment Center, in Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy: “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person… Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation…  Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

On Safety in the Public School Classroom

From Mike Rose in School Reform Fails the Test:  “For all of the variation… the classrooms (we visited) shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration.  But there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect.. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority… A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

On the Privatization of Public Education

Mike Rose from Possible Lives: “We have… a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. ‘The market is governed by a pricing system,’ writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, ‘that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning… associating, socializing, and helping.’ ”

From Jonathan Kozol in a 2016 Boston Globe commentary, Vote No on Charter Schools: “Slice it any way you want.  Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in their interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy.  What this represents is a state-supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters.  It isn’t good for… democracy.”

On the Need to Recommit Ourselves to Equity and Justice

From Eve Ewing in Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side:  “(W)hat do school closures and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it… (I)n expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the communities closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

From the late Senator Paul Wellstone in a speech at Teachers College, Columbia University, March 31, 2000: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

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.”