The determined enemies of public education currently are working, mostly behind the scenes, to undermine the public’s confidence in what once was, and still should be, among our most revered institutions: the public schools.
Certain ideologues will argue that the education of children does not fall within the purview of government, and that education is far too important an issue to be entrusted to those in public service. However, the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States directs our representatives to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” One would be hard pressed to name one human endeavor that will better bestow prosperity on posterity than facilitating a complete education for all citizens.
Is there any more reliable way to oppress a people than by fostering conditions that permit ignorance to fester? The Founding Fathers were abundantly clear on that topic. The very survival of our democracy – perhaps even the survival of our species – depends upon our collective resolve to deliver an adequate and equitable education to all children. To paraphrase Anne Sexton, the dissemination of knowledge must remain the awful rowing toward justice.
Our most challenged schools are wrongly touted as representative of failed education policy and reforms. Frequently, corporate reformers propose solutions that favor private institutions and choke off the funding for public ones; vouchers, charters, tax credits, and accountability measures deliver advantages mainly to more affluent citizens and condemn the most disadvantaged of our society to a fraction of a complete education. One conservative radio talk show host likes to speak dismissively of the “public screwels“, and his colleagues on the airwaves echo the Big Lie, ad infinitum, by inculcating listeners with anti-public school propaganda. “The schools are failing! Teachers are not teaching!”
Ample evidence to the contrary remains invisible to eyes that refuse to see.
Researchers have clearly demonstrated that economically disadvantaged children in so-called poorly performing schools arrive in pre-school already lagging behind their peers. Typically, such children make gains during the school year and then lose ground again during the summer hiatus. In other words, their teachers are teaching but systematic reinforcement of acquired skill is lacking outside of the classroom. The evidence suggests that the better-equipped schools and extra-curricular educational enrichment programs furnished to economically privileged children skew the performance curve on standardized assessments across the scholastic career.
As for the teacher retention issue, the 38-week school year and the 7.5 hour school day are always used as a justification to summarily dismiss demands for professional compensation for educators.
“What are teachers complaining about?” the naysayers ask. Well, even a cursory investigation reveals that an overwhelming majority of committed educators devote 10 to 12 hours-a-day to the required tasks of delivering effective instruction with little hope of finding any respite. Meanwhile, teachers are also required to implement new top-down reforms du jour, and to obtain an advanced degree that maintains certification for a compensation package that renders it impossible to support a family without a second job…
Is it really any wonder that more than half of all newcomers to the profession find themselves unable to endure more than five years in our overcrowded classrooms? Teachers have long advocated for lower class size to permit more individualized attention for every child , but the current funding structure based on property values virtually guarantees that school districts dominated by poverty will experience unfavorable staffing ratios.
Ironically, critics of public education praise reports that show home-schooled children outperform their peers from the public schools on standardized assessments. No public school teacher managing classes of more than three dozen students is shocked by this statistical tidbit and would likely claim that it supports the argument in favor of reducing class size. However, home schooling will never be a realistic option for a working, single mother of two seeking a brighter future for her children. Her children deserve to be nurtured in a well-funded, adequately-staffed neighborhood school.
A truly just society would allow no lesser school to exist; it is simply inexcusable that the wealthiest nation on the planet continues to shirk the duty of nurturing the intellectual growth of all children.
[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared on April 23, 2003 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.]