As everyone this week has said, I love public education. My own educational experiences have been an incredibly important part of who I am, and I will always feel indebted to my teachers (especially my first two teachers, my mother and father) for the instruction and encouragement that has opened so many doors in my life. My public school education gave me a chance to explore lots of different subjects and dabble in all areas of the arts, which helped me become the Jill-of-all-Trades kind of person I am today. It was also a center of my community, where people gathered to watch sporting events, take in student performances in support of the arts, and much more.
But I know that public schooling isn’t all roses and chocolates, either. I also remember how frequently I was one of two Black students (thank goodness for being a twin!) in my Honors and AP classes. As I reflected on my own schooling as a pre-service teacher, it was disappointingly easy to identify the programmatic and cultural practices (tracking, testing, etc.) that prevented all students from being challenged and pushed to their personal best. Despite the best efforts of most of us working within them, our schools too often work in tandem with other social forces that maintain inequality.
As a teacher, I received a hands-on education in the kind of pushback one can expect when taking on an entrenched status quo. I’m not talking about the “lazy-teachers-and-bum-unions” stereotype that’s often peddled in the media, but the real one fueled by inequitable and poorly-allocated resources, corporate-driven curriculum and assessment, and burdensome district, state, and federal mandates. I quickly realized that none of what kept me and my students from doing our best work would change if people like us remained silent (perhaps silenced is more appropriate) about what we’ve experienced.
The current school “reform” climate is dangerous for a number of reasons, but it’s the dishonesty and exclusivity that pervades it which troubles me the most. The way I see it, those two things go hand-in-hand. Whether by design or by accident, the fact that major education policy decisions are made over teachers’, students’, families’, and communities’ heads, without our full participation or influence, precludes those of us who see the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality from offering the kind of insight that could finally lead to the productive, proven changes communities have been awaiting for generations. And unlike previous periods of school reform, the question is no longer just “what will we do differently within public schools?” but, “Will our schools remain public?”
There is no question in my mind that they must, and that we—the parents, teachers, and students served by them—must be at the center of all discussions of reform. This and future generations of students will face some of the most daunting challenges our nation has ever known. Not just a globalized job market—that’s easy, compared to navigating unprecedented shifts in our racial and cultural demographics, major changes in the availability of crucial natural resources, a climate in peril, and the potential for large-scale conflict over such changes.
The answers to questions as complicated as these will not come in stacks of four or five, where two are obviously wrong. The nuance and thoughtfulness they require can not be assessed by a scorer reading them for a minute or less, much less a computer scoring them in as few as seven seconds. These kinds of issues, layered over the already demanding responsibilities of everyday life, will require all of the best thinking and action we can muster—it has never been more important to educate all children well. Not just those who come from affluent families, or those who win a lottery, or those whose parents can/will fill out the requisite applications, or those who live in states that can afford to put together a glitzy application for a competition—all children.
We can, and must, build an education system that ensures that every child can develop his or her unique talents, think critically, act productively, and work collaboratively. The framework to do this exists, and many school communities already do a fantastic job of achieving this. But implementing it nationwide, for all children, requires that we invest in schools and communities, and develop their capacity to make these changes happen. School reform strategies that attempt to accomplish this on the cheap, or which attempt to substitute human judgment and genius with canned programs and mechanized assessments, have failed, and will continue to do so. And behaviorist reforms based on rewards and punishments determined by test scores lead schools to focus too heavily on low-level basic skills—or become so obsessed with performance that students learn to perform well without actually learning. This, too, will not help us grow a generation of thinkers, innovators and problem-solvers.
Despite its flaws, a universal public education system is still our best hope of growing such a generation. Other nations have already demonstrated what’s possible when societies invest in their schools—and many of them did so using our best ideas. Public education for all is itself one of our best ideas, and this is not the time to abandon it, or to passively hope someone or something will come along to save it. There are no magic bullets, no Supermen, no one but ourselves. And so, if we love public education, then we need to seize this moment to speak out and stand up for it. If we don’t, who will?