It might sound strange given that I teach in a private, religious high school but I am a strong proponent of the necessity – yes, necessity – of a strong public education system in America.
We’ve grown up with public education as a given, but it’s roots aren’t necessarily that deep – or that strong. Public education as we know it is less than two centuries old. I remember back a couple of decades when there were attempts – some successful – to take over public school boards in order to push what was, essentially, a parochial religious vision represented, first and foremost, by the introduction of “creationism” into the curriculum. Likewise, many have championed the banning of particular books because of the conflict between their own values and those of the books. The appointment of Betsy DeVos has been a significant step in the same direction; she is a vocal proponent of school choice and privatization, at the same time excoriating public schools and unionized teachers for their (alleged and real) failures.
A useful corrective to the DeVos-ification of public education can be found in a recent, brief article in The Atlantic (Oct. 2017 – https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-war-on-public-schools/537903/), written by Erika Christakis, an American early childhood educator and the author of The Importance of Being Little. In the article, she makes two salient points worthy of remembering:
- The denigration of our public schools and our public school teachers, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
- The “growing neglect of their (the schools’) role as in incubator of citizens.
- Related to #2: the commodification of education as a personal “consumable” rather than as a public good/need.
To the first point: the public flogging of public schools and their teachers ignores all victories and neglects to mention the tens of thousands of public school teachers who successfully educate their students. She points to a study that indicates that “school districts with strong unions actually do a better job of weeding out bad teachers and retaining good ones than do those with weak unions.” It has not yet been demonstrated that strong unions have a positive impact on student outcomes, she adds, but this study certainly contradicts the claims of so-called reformers. In addition, she points to places for improvement: improving the pool of available teachers – at a time when national shortfall is expected to reach 100,000 in the next year – in particular by making salaries competitive with other career paths; introducing other strategies, such as forgivable tuition loans, service fellowships, hardship pay for the most challenging positions, housing and child-care subsidies, and “de-larding” the public school bureaucracy that has too many administrators and not enough high-quality teachers.
To the second point and third: whether one follows the traditional “melting-pot” metaphor or the one that I think is more apt, Horace Kallen’s “salad bowl” public education is where a common identity and common commitment should be forged. She quotes Jefferson and John Adams as key early supporters of the essential nature of public education for a functioning democracy. Specifically, and to the interest expressed by many conservatives who might find DeVos’ thinking attractive, public education plays a crucial role in the Americanizing of immigrants, something that many of our own grandparents knew firsthand. Bringing together children of different backgrounds, colors, religions, abilities and disabilities and so on is vital in teaching students – and giving them the first-hand experience – of living together with others who are unlike them. Furthermore, the public setting is the one most likely to succeed in developing critical thinking and educating its students in the responsibilities of citizenship. (While my school does exceptionally well in teaching critical thinking, this article has caused me to wonder about the ways in which we foster a civic commitment, a question that I intend to pursue. At the same time, we do offer interaction with students of other background, for example through our participation in Eboo Patel’s IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core.)
The arc of political anger and discourse has brought us to a fractious and fractured place. In such a setting, we need to strengthen and civilize our discourse and our politics. Public education is a key – perhaps the key – element in renewing that.