Appreciating the Public Schools We Take for Granted

This week is American Education Week and next week will be Thanksgiving. In this context, I have been thinking about the challenge of valuing an institution we tend to overlook. Here are a few of my thoughts and some from wiser thinkers who have considered the importance of our nation’s system of public schooling.

This blog will take the holiday week off.  Look for a new post on November 29.

Like all human institutions, public education is imperfect. As a primary civic institution, our public school system reflects all the sins and problems of our society.  Nevertheless, public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents are served. Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular student and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all students.  Our society has improved the fairness of our system of public education over the generations by passing laws to protect the rights and serve the needs of previously marginalized African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, English Language Learner, and LGBTQ children.  We need to keep on making public schools safer and more authentically welcoming for every student, but at the same time, we should be grateful that our ancestors established a school system that aspires to our best civic values.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber summarizes some of the things we forget to value but count on nonetheless: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

Appreciating Teachers in these Fraught Times

This year we especially need to celebrate school teachers. They deserve extra respect and gratitude in this year when COVID-19 is still disrupting school—as students and teachers continue to test positive for the pandemic and classes are quarantined for periods of time; as teachers must fill in for others who get sick in addition to managing their own classes because there is a shortage of available substitutes; and as children struggle to adjust a regular schedule after a year of the utter disruption of normal schooling. Exhausted teachers are working to help students catch up academically and readjust socially to institutional routines and being with each other.  As we watch all the frenzied press about parents protesting about mask requirements during COVID and parents distrusting the teaching of American history, we ought to remember that classroom teachers have become an easy target.  Teachers deserve special thanks and appreciation as another difficult COVID-19 school year is now underway.

We especially need to celebrate the fact that so many teachers keep on keeping on day after day amidst these very difficult circumstances. While there are shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers and teachers’ aides, for FiveThirtyEight, Rebecca Klein reports that the number of teachers resigning their positions in frustration has been less than alarming reports originally projected: “By many accounts, teachers have been particularly unhappy and stressed out about their jobs since the pandemic hit, first struggling to adjust to difficult remote-learning requirements and then returning to sometimes unsafe working environments.  A nationally representative survey of teachers by RAND Education and Labor in late January and early February found that educators were feeling depressed and burned out… Yet the data on teacher employment shows a system that is stretched, not shattered.  In an EdWeek Research Center report released in October, a significant number of district leaders and principals surveyed—a little less than half—said that their district had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers. This number paled in comparison, though, with the nearly 80 percent of school leaders who said they were struggling to find substitute teachers, the nearly 70 percent who said they were struggling to find bus drivers and the 55 percent who said they were struggling to find paraprofessionals.”

Klein gives considerable credit to teachers unions for supporting teachers through this very difficult period: “Indeed, union representation, and the perks that come along with it, is something that other sectors facing massive shortages of female workers, like service and hospitality industries don’t necessarily receive. As of 2017, about 70 percent of teachers participated in a union or professional association, according to federal data. By comparison, the same is true for only about 17 percent of nurses, another predominantly female workforce.”

Klein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Every place I went, yes, there’s trepidation, a lot of agita over the effects of COVID, but there’s real joy of people being back in school with their kids… Female professions are undervalued by society, and I think that’s part of the reason teachers are more densely organized than almost any other worker in America right now.”

Appreciating Public Institutions Against the Threat of School Privatization

The purveyors of school privatization at public expense—as an alternative to traditional public schools—are a persistent threat to our universal system of public schooling. Well-organized and determined advocates for school privatization are taking advantage of all the pandemic-related frustrations to peddle their wares. Glitzy ads for K-12 Inc, the for-profit online school, pop up on the cable news networks and despite information to the contrary, charter schools brag to parents that their schools are less disrupted by COVID. Ohio’s new state budget expands plain old vouchers and introduces education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers. Charter schools are being introduced in West Virginia. What are the reasons to appreciate our public system instead?

Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, conceptualizes what we all lose when we privatize an essential public institution like education. The losers are always the most vulnerable, those who lack power and money:

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Appreciating Learning in a Public School Setting

In our era when when extremists are disrupting  too many local school board meetings and far-right legislators armed with ALEC model bills for vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers are trying to expand tax supported school privatization in many places, we can consider the words of the late Mike Rose. Rose spent a lifetime celebrating public education, but he believed its promise must be perpetually expanded:

“Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose….  There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope.  Such is not the case now.  An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.”

Reengaging may begin with taking the time to consider and appreciate what happens in our public schools. Rose continues: “One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life…. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language… 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….  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 it loses its civic heart.”  (Why School?, pp 203-207)

The Meaning of Teachers’ Walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky

One indication of the power of recent walkouts by schoolteachers is that people who have traditionally delighted in criticizing teachers and their unions have been investing energy and messaging expertise to try to downplay what has been happening this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington points to a messaging guide created by the State Policy Network (SPN), a formal organization connecting far-right-think thanks across the states and coordinating their work and messaging with the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC): “The ‘messaging guide’ is the brainchild of the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 rightwing ‘ideas factories’ that span every state in the nation. SPN uses its $80m war chest—funded by billionaire super-donors such as the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation… to coordinate conservative strategy across the country. Another financial backer of SPN is the billionaire DeVos family…. SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to ‘defund and defang’ public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers.” (SPN’s Messaging Guide is embedded in Pilkington’s article as a SCRIBD document.)

Here is how SPN introduces its new Messaging Guide: How to Talk about Teacher Strikes: “A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc.  This is an opportunity to sympathize with teachers, while still emphasizing that teacher strikes hurt kids… Independent research has repeatedly shown that time out of school disproportionately hurts low-income kids. Low-income kids already face serious disadvantages and they shouldn’t be punished because adults can’t agree.”

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin clearly got the memo. Without any evidence—and apparently assuming that teachers’ primary role is babysitting—Bevin jumped to the conclusion that a teachers’ strike might endanger kids: “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them… Children were harmed—some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time—because they were vulnerable and left alone.”

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sort of got SPN’s advice right about focusing on the students, although, as usual, she pretty much misses the point that what hurts schools and teachers also affects the children: “I think about the kids. I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Despite efforts by the far-right to message in a way that minimizes the impact of a month’s walkouts by teachers, the President of the United Steelworkers, Leo Gerard sees something else: “GOP politicians have so denigrated public school teachers that the educators in three states have engaged in wildcat strikes, mobbing their capitol buildings and demanding improved school funding for students and better pay and benefits for themselves and other workers.  Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, like the 1920s West Virginia coal miners, had nothing to lose… What these states have in common is Republican control and union suppression.  All are states that forbid labor organizations from charging workers who choose not to join the union fair share payments to cover the costs of collective bargaining… Parents, communities and educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona know that tax-cutting, labor-hating Republican politicians are to blame for the school disruptions.”

Economist Jared Bernstein agrees that repression of unions in the states where teachers have walked out is one of the reasons why teachers’ salaries and investment in public schools have declined dangerously: “First, by ‘what has gone wrong,’ I mean the erosion of institutions whose purpose is to even out inherent power imbalances that arise in all societies and are particularly steep in our current moment… While the union movement has always had its problems—no institutions are immune from their own internal power imbalances—it has always existed, back to the Middle Ages, as a counterfoil to dynamics that today take the form of rising inequality, the defunding of a government that is increasingly dysfunctional, nonrepresentative elections, and the unfettered rise of corporate power and finance.” Bernstein continues, describing striking schoolteachers: “They are pointing the way toward an essential and huge missing piece from today’s politics: middle- and low-income people organizing to fight for an amply funded, functional public sector that balances the scales that have been so sharply tilted against them.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published Peter Greene’s explanation of the month’s walkouts by teachers.  Greene is a career high school teacher in Pennsylvania; he also publishes the Curmuducation blog: “Teachers strike because they are out of options. They strike because the other side won’t negotiate in good faith. They strike because they feel dismissed and disrespected. They strike because their work conditions have become awful, with no relief in sight. They strike because they feel the future of their profession and their school are in peril. They strike because they can’t think of any other way to make things better. But a strike? Couldn’t they get their message across some other way? Guess what? They’ve been trying, and trying some more. In fact, teachers have been engaged in a slow-motion strike for about a decade, walking off the job one or two at a time. But instead of recognizing this as a work stoppage, we’ve labeled it a ‘teacher shortage.’ And instead of responding by asking how we can fix the job so that it is attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers, states have mostly responded by saying, ‘How can we lower standards so that we can put any warm body in a classroom?’”

Retired Michigan music teacher—and author of a regular column about teaching for Education WeekNancy Flanagan considers what teachers have been trying to accomplish this month: “It’s time to talk—again—about this myth that teachers need to run themselves ragged for the pure and holy aim of helping The Children learn. The cherished legend of the teacher who devotes 24/7 to being accessible to her students, never taking time to refresh her own intellect or spirit.  The martyr… Teacher walkouts are the ultimate outcome of wringing every drop of energy, patience and creative juice out of a well-meaning workforce. Ideally, teaching is fully professional work, involving a researched knowledge base, careful training and field preparation, induction and mentoring protocols and the rewards of collegial sharing and personal growth in addition to the satisfaction of knowing one is shaping the nation’s future citizens. An adequate salary and benefit package would help, too. Without all of these in place, we can’t expect high-quality candidates to be attracted to teaching…. What’s happening now is an unmistakable call: Suffering teachers need help to do a better job for the children entrusted to their care. Want better schools? Pay attention.”

Of course what teachers do matters in the deepest ways for children and families—which is why so many parents and students, even children in elementary school—have been marching to support their teachers this month. Education writer Mike Rose captures the essence of what teachers do in a recent blog post: “I value the small stuff.  The teacher who encourages a hesitant question; who remembers a student’s name outside the classroom; who in discussing a paper suggests a book, a podcast, a movie; who spends an extra five minutes in a conference…. These are everyday signs of commitment, micro-evidence of care. Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of students from kindergarten to adult education, and I’ve been struck by how meaningful the small stuff is to them particularly to those students who feel out of place, and in some cases, are having a hard time of it. These behaviors register, I think, because of their everydayness, because they seem to flow naturally from who a particular teacher is and therefore are experienced as real, authentic.”

Rose is, of course, describing teachers’ enormous contribution—the work for which they should be paid fairly and supported with an adequately funded, staffed, and supplied school environment.