A while ago I had a reader suggest that I lay off my expressions of empathy for public school teachers and the burdens that various policies and reform efforts have laid upon them: so-called valued-added evaluation, endless rounds of standardized testing for their students, and public excoriation at the hands of politicians and pundits on all sides.
I guess my thoughts sounded like crocodile tears. How could someone from schools like ours--independent schools: tuition-driven, self-governed, self-funding--know or care about the daily travails of public schools and their teachers and students?
Well, my direct personal experience may be limited, but I have some ideas about what is right and what is wrong for schools, teachers, and kids. I am no expert, maybe, but I've had questions about some of the structural "reforms" that have been laid upon (and, to be fair, sometimes emerged from, and then been twisted) public schools for quite a while. A few years back the late Gerald Bracey's Education Hell reaffirmed my perspective that public schools are being weakened, not strengthened, by testing-based "reforms," and Diane Ravitch's stirring The Death and Life of the Great American School System just underscored this for me. That's where I'm coming from. Forget about what kinds of schools I've been at.
I happen to believe that privatizers and corporatizers are a real threat to America's children. We're a society excited by the idea of making a buck, a giant buck, and there's a large and influential audience--outside the education field, mostly--that is thrilled when successful capitalists offer to spend their idle hours doing to schools whatever they did for their computer company or chain store. And some folks are just as intrigued when other capitalists try to turn their clever business practices--it's all about efficiencies, data, economies of scale--toward making a buck out of public education by setting up for-profit charter schools. Bedazzled, we let the money control the narrative. Dennis Sparks pretty well summed it all up in a blog post late last year.
As a society and as an national education industry (although I hate calling it that) we have the know-how to teach every kid well. We have the wealth to create schools in which every student is known, valued, and educated, although more and more of that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few--frankly, a few so tiny that how they choose to educate their own kids is an irrelevancy except as part of the counter-narrative.
Know-how and wealth. What's missing, of course, is the will.
Of course we have created systemic problems that have ensured that many of the nation's largest public school systems are the most at-risk. White Flight (you could call it something else) trashed city tax bases in the 60s and 70s, followed up by taxpayer rebellions that cut education funding in states starting in the 1980s. Some suburbanites may have held on to theirs, mostly, but city kids--and country kids, too, although we tend to forget about them--now often find themselves in schools with aging buildings, few resources, and teachers blamed for poor student performance that was born in impoverished homes before the kids even started school. And we ignore the obvious advantages that strong pre-school programs can give every child.
Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, we learn, are set to close a bunch of schools, cutting loose thousands of students, disproportionately minority. And let's remember that during the teacher strike in Chicago last year public school parent Matt Farmer offered up a rousing oration on what kids there, and every other kid in that city and every other community, deserve. He just happens to reference--positively--an independent school; that speech was echoing in my head when I wrote my own reminiscence on my public school years.
I am saying nothing that anyone reading this doesn't already know. And there's little in the story the way I see it that doesn't make me angry, and sad, and frustrated. I'm an educator, a taxpayer, and a citizen, and my distress for kids and teachers isn't crocodile tears.
Every parent, every teacher, every administrator, every alum, every trustee, and, yes, every student in an independent school is a stakeholder in our nation's future. We are, in the broadest sense, all the surrogate parents of all of our nation's children. Many of us involved with independent schools have ideas about how schools are supposed to be; read this blog, listen again to Matt Farmer's references to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (and the righteous and proper stance of its head), go and visit an independent school in your community. We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education.
Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow