Public Education: Start Again?

My Twitter friend Stephen Diil in his blog Public Education: Start Again wrote:

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it?What a lovely notion, the idea of starting all over.

Stephen challenged me to respond. I did. Here’s what I said:

It is a stimulating intellectual exercise that, I’m deeply afraid, has little or no relationship to reality.

Oh, some district somewhere will take the plunge and try to start fresh without any of the old assumptions. Let’s even assume that they can convince the teachers to go along with, better yet, be part of planning the renaissance. Imagine that, administrators, teachers, and maybe even some entrepreneurs working together and moving in a common direction; I can almost see the sun shining through brilliant rainbows and bluebirds chirping the good news.

Double Supernumerary Rainbow

Image by Proggie via Flickr

But wait! We still have to convince the parents.

Parents, it turns out, are deeply suspicious of any major fundamental re-imagining of school. This is the main reason that charter schools, for the most part, are just more intense, sometimes more focused versions of your everyday public school.

It seems parents like the 10-hour schooldays because it provides that much more free childcare coverage for working moms and dads, but as soon as ideas like student choice and child-directed education start flying about the parents fly off the handle and out the door.

Okay, but this is an intellectual exercise, not a pragmatic one, right.

I repeat that because if it were a discussion of pragmatic reformations of education we’d have to account for all those pesky poverty-stricken inner-city kids who, while desperately in need of open space and access to nature, have little safe access to it.

It is, in fact, in the inner cities and, paradoxically perhaps, the rural areas where all discussions of education reform trip over themselves and fall.

In inner cities there are just too many kids to scrap the current system and start over. No one in their right mind is going to put the million or so school children in NYC out onto the streets whilst the school buildings are torn down to create new educational open spaces.

Farmland in the Catskill country, in New York ...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The rural areas have lots of space but not the concentration of students to make use of it the way it might be used elsewhere. That students who live in open space will need to be bussed to other open spaces for educational purposes is mind-boggling.

So, if it won’t work in inner cities and won’t work in rural areas, who will benefit from this re-imagination of education? Why, it’s the wealthier suburban kids whose schools, for the most part, are not the real problems we think about when we think about the problems of or caused by public education.

One can no more restart the education system than one could restart fire service, policing, sanitation services, the military or any of the other similar major social-service agencies.

Change in education, like in most aspects of life and public policy, is and will remain far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Tis a pity, for sure.

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2 Responses to Public Education: Start Again?

  1. Ira Socol says:

    I’ll start with the same comments I left on Stephen’s site, but then…

    I’ve thought of this a great deal, even wrote my “version” not too long ago I come at this from a few perspectives.

    One is that, luckily, I got to be part of a completely “rethought” school as a high school student – – a school without age-based grades, without grading, where science credit came from interning in a city hospital lab or developing a small heritage farm in a city park. Where history credit might come from wandering Manhattan, social studies credit from re-envisioning a downtown or interviewing the homeless in Grand Central’s tunnels after midnight. See for a pdf regarding a similar school in Philadelphia.

    This taught me some key things: Kids bring the world with them into school. They bring their interests, passions, problems. “School” should be about leveraging that, not denying it. Schoolwork should be the safe place to experiment with the world – the place where we get to play and work out the details of our real learning, 99% of which happens outside of school.

    School should never be a place of subject divisions – for some kids that heritage farm was science credit, for others history, for others both. Of course.

    School should not be a place of time constraints. Periods, semesters… that’s stupid. Human interest and human learning does not stop and start when bells ring.

    But I also know that I like schools as a physical place. It hasn’t always been “nice” for me, but even that free school really benefitted from our mostly empty “White Room” (an ex cafeteria) where we could gather, be safe and away from the world that had hurt us. I’m a massive fan of the technologies which smash the walls of school, but sometimes, those walls protect and defend. We should not lose them.

    And I know that school needs to be a place focused on “what” not “how.” “How” disables – read this book this way, write this way, sit in this chair, come at this time. “What” enables – show us how you know? what you’ve learned? Do it your way.

    Quick thoughts, but they’ve been bubbling up for decades.

    BUT, for the politics – its a challenge. Schools like the high school I’ve described were destroyed by Diane Ravitch and Company’s assault on “open education” which began 25 years ago for political, not educational, reasons. Free thinking was not just a danger to conservative politics, it was perceived as an economic threat – critical thinkers would not grow up to be good on Toyota-style assembly lines.

    Now, the evidence of what we’ve lost is clear. Not just in Ravitch’s mea culpa but in the work of MSU Prof Yong Zhao which demonstrates the coming disaster.

    And now we must stop letting Democratic Party (or Labour Party) policy on education to be no more than a sop to the right (how’s that working anyway Obama?).

    As Pam Moran of Virginia says, we need our backchannel to be everywhere, we need to make it very public.

  2. Mary Beth Hertz says:

    Wow, great comment, Ira!

    How perfect, Deven, that you used the word ‘renaissance’ to describe this education upheaval.

    That is exactly what the movement in Philadelphia is called. They are closing schools that are failing and re-opening them as charters, privately run schools or tightly controlled district run schools. Same horse, different name. In addition, there is now a hiring freeze in Philadelphia because (surprise!) there aren’t enough positions for all of the teachers from these schools that need new jobs due to them being forced out.

    These new schools are also supposed to be planned by community members and parents. How many parents do you think are showing up to these meetings? Yeah, that many.

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